Editor's note: In a social media post on Wednesday, Dec. 7, the Los Altos Stage Company announced that the second week of performances for "The Secret Garden" have been canceled, with plans to resume performances on Wednesday, Dec. 14. The company had announced last Friday that opening weekend performances were canceled due to a positive COVID-19 test in the cast. For more information, visit losaltosstage.org.
Healing and hope are in bloom at the Bus Barn Theater this December, thanks to Los Altos Stage Company's upcoming production of "The Secret Garden." Based on the classic 1911 children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the musical adaptation, which premiered in 1991 and won several Tony Awards, features music by Lucy Simon and book by Marsha Norman. Los Altos Stage Company Executive Artistic Director Gary Landis is both directing and doing scenic design for the show, with musical direction by D. Asa Stern.
The story, set in the early 20th century, follows the adventure of Mary Lennox, an English girl living with her parents in India. She's sent to England after she's orphaned by a cholera outbreak. Sullen and lonely, she finds herself in the wild Yorkshire moorlands, at the unhappy home of her depressed and reclusive uncle (still lost in grief after his wife's death) and the frail young son he keeps locked away from the world. Once Mary begins to explore the manor grounds, especially the remnants of her late aunt's long-neglected garden, she finds purpose in restoring the enchanting place, and discovers the healing power of nature, kindness and friendship along the way.
The show will, Landis hopes, bring some joy to theater-goers after a rough few years, with arts organizations still struggling to thrive in the COVID era.
"The pandemic itself was a challenge, but the real challenge is now about re-engaging and rebuilding, and helping people get back into their routines in terms of how they're participating in the local arts community," he said. "I think it will take this year and longer to get back to where we were."
Landis said that the theater company was mindful that audiences might especially be craving something uplifting this season. "We felt that we should focus on pieces that were artistically beautiful, that had hopeful messages with them."
"The Secret Garden," with its beloved story of transformation, fit the bill, especially for those seeking a musical treat.
"Fundamentally, it's a show about its music. Song makes up three-quarters of the script. It's heavily dominated by singing, versus dialogue," Landis said. "It has beautiful songs and beautiful orchestration, but the challenge for us was, it does require a lot of attention to the orchestration."
Because of its small theater space, Los Altos Stage Company (LASC) productions often adapt musical scores to the venue, paring down the arrangements to need just a few musicians and instruments. But in this case, since a full, lush sound was deemed crucial to doing justice to the work, a 10-piece orchestra of strings and woodwinds will be incorporated into the production.
"It's different for us," Landis said. "The orchestra is front and center, with the actors moving right through the orchestra itself. The audience is seeing the performers and the musicians simultaneously."
The cast is also quite large for a LASC production, featuring 18 performers, with almost half of them portraying the "dreamers" — ghostly figures from the family's past who haunt the grounds and serve as chorus. Actors are working with a dialect coach to assist them on their received pronunciation (the standard form of British English pronunciation) and Yorkshire accents, and there are familiar faces among the cast, including Penelope DaSilva, who's playing Mary.
DaSilva, a freshman at Archbishop Mitty High School, starred in the comedy "Ruthless" with the company in May and was eager to return, despite the challenge of juggling her school workload and theater.
"My favorite part of this experience is getting to perform this show with an amazing cast," she told The Almanac.
Though DaSilva hadn't read "The Secret Garden" before getting involved, she has found some common ground with the character she's playing.
"I am a very curious person and, like Mary, if there are questions that go unanswered, I seek the answers myself," she said.
In terms of scenic design, Landis said he always aims to play to the strengths of the intimate space.
"In the Bus Barn, what works well is to create a singular environment that you transform things on top of," he said. "For 'The Secret Garden,' we focus mostly on an environment that combines both the garden and the elements of the house together in a single set," with evocative visuals including ivy-covered brick walls, the house's archways and the iconic door to the locked-up, titular garden. The design incorporates tintype images that look weathered and worn, with vividly colored projections that help show the garden in bloom and reinforce the transformative tone.
"We never try to pretend that we're something that we're not in terms of size and scale but rather try to figure out, where are the benefits of intimacy in the productions?" he said. The emphasis is on the storytelling rather than spectacle, and "the closeness between the audience and the performers telling the story. There's a quiet nature to the space that allows stories to be told in that kind of way."
"The Secret Garden" runs Dec. 1-23 at the Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos. Tickets are $20-$40. Until otherwise stated, masks are required in the theater. More information is available at losaltosstage.org.