Stage & Dance

Director lovingly cultivates 'The Secret Garden'

Bella Mancuso shares the role of Mary Lennox. Above, Mary explores the eerie halls of her new home.
Bella Mancuso shares the role of Mary Lennox. Above, Mary explores the eerie halls of her new home. Herald-Leader

VERSAILLES — James W. Rodgers is no stranger to the award-winning musical The Secret Garden, which he's directing at The Woodford Theatre. He directed in it in 1996 while a professor at the University of Kentucky.

"This is one of my favorite plays, one of my favorite musicals, and the opportunity of doing it again after 17 years is wonderful," he said.

The Secret Garden, based on the beloved 1911 children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, follows Mary Lennox, a young English girl raised during British rule in India. She is orphaned at age 11 and is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald, a sad widower, in his huge mansion in Yorkshire, England. There she discovers a secret walled garden, which leads to the spiritual regeneration of the family. The musical, with words by Louisville native Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, premiered in 1991 on Broadway, where it flopped.

But Rodgers has a history with turning the Broadway failure into a good show. When he led the UK production, the show's Lexington premiere, a Herald-Leader critic wrote that he and his team "rescued what may well be a misunderstood masterpiece. ... It's hard to imagine it could have been anywhere near this good even in New York."

The Woodford Theatre production, five weeks in the making, started with a diverse casting of actors and actresses. The youngest actors in the show are 11; the oldest are in their 60s. All have various degrees of experience in the theater.

"The real beauty of community theater is that you have the chance to work with the various ages and generations," Rodgers said. "What's interesting is to watch the generations learn and grow from each other as actors."

One of the more experienced actors is Bill Barto, 65, who plays Major Holmes, a ghost from Mary's past.

"The age-old story goes, 'Never do a show with children or animals,' but these kids are really talented," Barto said of the youngsters in the cast.

Bella Mancuso and Grace Brown, both 11, are double-cast as Mary. They each described the rehearsal process as tiring, but they agreed that the experience has been worth it.

"Sometimes it was hard, because the practices were later and we had school," Mancuso said. "But watching it all come together is amazing."

With the variety in stage experience comes a wide range of dance skills among the cast.

"A lot of the actors in this piece have not had a tremendous amount of training in dance, so that has been one of the challenges," said Tracey Bonner, the choreographer for the show. "But on the flip side of that, all of the actors have been very eager to learn and have been willing to work very hard."

Several members of the cast and crew of Rodgers' cast for The Secret Garden at UK have returned in this production.

Johnathan Watson, who plays Uncle Archibald, was once a student of Rodgers, as was Jan Hooker, who plays Martha the maid.

Rodgers said the play can be as beneficial for adults as it is for children. Emphasis is placed on the relationships between adults in the story as much as there is focus on the kids.

"There is certainly something for everyone in this play," he said.

"This play talks about the need for forgiveness for renewal and for showing compassion for others and the way we grow," he said. "And the way we find the secret garden is to help others and reach out ourselves to other people, and that's what this play is about."


'The Secret Garden'

What: The Woodford Theatre's production of the musical The Secret Garden, a 1991 musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel.

When: 8 p.m. May 31-June 1, 7-8, 14-15; and 2 p.m. June 2, 9, 16.

Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Rd., Versailles.

Tickets: $19 adults, $12 students. Available at (859) 873-0648 and

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