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'The Secret Garden, the Musical' at Chance Theater

Past and present connect in Chance Theater’s redesigned holiday classic

By Libby Nicolay

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, Chance Theater's holiday literary series promises yet another spellbinding production of the timeless classic, “The Secret Garden, the Musical,” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. The visionaries behind the magic are co-directors KC Wilkerson and Casey Long, and they each bring their unique perspectives to breathe new life into this beloved tale.

Set against the haunting backdrop of a decaying mansion, “The Secret Garden” is Norman and Simon's adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel. It weaves a poignant narrative of Mary Lennox, a young girl sent to live with her reclusive uncle in England after being orphaned in India. As Mary discovers a secret, neglected garden on the estate, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the past, unlocking secrets that bring her both personal and communal healing. The story explores themes of grief, connection, and the transformative power of nature.

For co-director KC Wilkerson, his passion for the story of “The Secret Garden” radiates. When asked about the initial draw to the production, Wilkerson reminisced about experiencing the show in the mid-90s and being captivated by its themes. His vision for the production takes a daring turn, steering away from the story’s traditionally picturesque aesthetic. Inspired by historic manor homes, he delved into the concept of a conservatory as the focal point—a space where Lily, a ghostly character, is tethered to the living world. The set, much like the conservatory, holds the accumulated belongings of Lily, connecting the characters in a web of past and present.

From Left: Laura M. Hathaway, Elizabeth Last, Ryan J. Lloyd and Sarah Pierce (Photos by Francis Gacad)

“The Secret Garden” is a story rich with layers of connection, loss, and renewal. Wilkerson explained how the characters, particularly Lily, Archie, and Neville, are intertwined in a web of the past while longing for connection. The symbolic conservatory space becomes the epicenter of their shared history, drawing audiences into a world where the living and the dead find solace.

One poignant moment is Mary's song, "The Girl I Mean To Be." This gem captures the essence of Mary’s journey, expressing her desire for a place of authenticity and peace. We see the show's emotional depth in duets like "Lily's Eyes," a powerful expression of love and loss sung by two men, Archie and Neville, intertwined in their love of Lily.

The two directors seamlessly blended their visions during the creative process. Long credited Wilkerson for his visionary design, particularly with enhancing the gothic and steampunk elements in the story. With his background as a media designer for Disney Live Entertainment, Wilkerson contributed his distinctive touch to the show’s visual elements. Long, meanwhile, has played a vital role in shaping the narrative and characters, while bringing Wilkerson’s vision to life in a cohesive way.

Collaboration between co-directors can be a delicate dance, but the process has felt natural for Wilkerson and Long. They emphasized the benefits of having a partner as a sounding board for ideas and sharing inspirations. Long added that their collaboration fostered a free-flowing conversation that has allowed them to build on each other's strengths.

Elizabeth Last (Photo by Francis Gacad)

Challenges inevitably arose in the form of budget constraints and time limitations. However, the duo has navigated these hurdles by leveraging a talented cast, including returning actors like Laura Hathaway, Christopher Diem, and Sarah Pierce. The synergy between seasoned performers and newcomers has created a trusting atmosphere within the cast, with the veterans guiding the newer members through the process.

Long shared insights into how this rendition of “The Secret Garden” will set itself apart. The exploration of legacy is a central theme, and this version will dive deeper into the characters' backgrounds and the impact of their pasts. The ensemble of dreamers, often relegated to the background, will take center stage, adding to the storyline more than in previous productions. Long also emphasized the importance of maintaining the joyful spirit of the story while deepening its exploration of grief and connection.

Chance Theater’s “The Secret Garden” is not just a holiday show—it's an exploration of the human experience, a celebration of connection, and a testament to the power of storytelling. This production promises to be a fresh and vibrant experience. As the characters navigate the delicate balance between life and death, grief and renewal, audiences will find themselves captivated by a story that transcends both time and space.

Libby Nicolay is a writer and local theatre enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County and beyond.

‘The Secret Garden, the Musical’

Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center

5522 E. La Palma Ave, Anaheim, CA 92807

November 24 - December 23, 2023

(888) 455-4212,

From Left: Troy Dailey and Laura M. Hathaway (Photo by Francis Gacad)

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