Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a remounting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in a coproduction with Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
As in the original book, the feisty 10-year-old Mary Lennox has been brought up in the British Raj of India, spoiled by servants and ignored by her parents. When her parents die in a cholera epidemic, Mary is sent to England to stay with an uncle, Archibald Craven, a sad man who lives in Yorkshire and is still mourning the death of his wife, Lily, 10 years earlier. On arriving at Craven Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, Mary hears someone crying at night. She feels the huge castle is haunted. Her uncle and his brother, Dr. Neville Craven, ignore her completely.
Slowly, some of the staff at the Manor take an interest in Mary: the chambermaid, Martha; the Manor's gardener, Ben; and Martha's brother, Dickon. When Mary learns that her late aunt had a walled garden, she becomes determined to find it. Eventually, she finds the key to the garden's door, enters, and finds the space gray and colorless, caught in the grip of winter. With the help of Dickon, Mary spends a lot of time planting seeds and waiting for spring.
While Archibald is away from the Manor, Mary finds the person who has been crying at night. It is Archibald's son, Colin, who has been confined to his bed by Neville. Mary treats Colin with cool common sense, convinces him he is not dying, and urges him to come outdoors with her. With Dickon to push a wheelchair, Mary and Colin spend a lot of time exercising Colin's atrophied legs until he can walk without help. When Colin's father returns home, he and his son are reunited and Archibald realizes that he needs to celebrate Colin's life instead of mourning his wife's death.
Anya Rothman is wonderful as Mary, especially in the second half of the musical when she becomes a force for Colin's rehabilitation. She has a strong, sweet voice, which occasionally could not be heard properly on opening night due to a faulty microphone. Lizzie Klemperer is excellent as Lily, whose diamond-bright soprano electrifies a variety of songs, the shifting tone of which is a testament to composer Lucy Simon and lyricist (and book writer) Marsha Norman's endless inventiveness. Standouts include "India," "I Heard Someone Crying," "Come to My Garden," and "How Could I Ever Know."
The good and bad brothers, Archibald and Neville Craven, are carefully distinguished by Michael Xavier and Josh Young, respectively. Xavier is particularly good in "A Bit of Earth," where he is asked to stretch his powerful tenor to soaring heights then moderate it to almost a whisper. Xavier and Young are particularly impressive together in the duet where they both remember "Lily's Eyes."
Daisy Eagan is delightful as Martha, who helps Mary out of her spoiled-brat phase and gets her to play outdoors. (Eagan won a Best Featured Actress Tony for originating the role of Mary in the original 1991 production, making her the youngest actress to win the award.) Charlie Franklin is a fine choice for Dickon, who helps Mary get used to the Yorkshire countryside. Séan Griffin cuts a comic figure as Ben, and Henry Baratz is well cast as Colin, particularly after he has been given a chance to flourish outdoors.
Director David Armstrong has assembled a strong ensemble. They appear first as Mary's parents and friends in India, then in the Craven home, dressed in white as "Spirits." Armstrong, who also serves as the choreographer, uses a great deal of dance, particularly waltzes, to keep the movement flowing smoothly throughout the musical.
Scenic designer Anna Louizos creates three key positions to introduce the musical's most important characters: a huge golden picture frame for Lily to sit in and sing; an overstuffed armchair for Archibald; and a place on the floor from which Mary may observe. All three are lit with spotlights by lighting director Mike Baldassari. After this beginning, Louizos creates a pale blue-green outline of a great Victorian castle to suggest the interior of the Manor and three movable, twisted green hoop shapes and flats to create the garden. When Lord Craven returns home from Paris, the flats and hoops slide aside and up to reveal a garden overflowing with flowers, particularly the pink roses Lily used to grow.
Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward provides the ladies and gentlemen with formal white evening wear, lacy dresses for the women, officers uniforms for the men. The Craven brothers wear typical Victorian black three-piece suits. Mary wears ankle-length Victorian dresses, dark at first and gradually lighter. Rick Fox provides additional arrangements and conducts his skilled 13-person orchestra from the apron of the stage.
For generations, people have enjoyed Burnett's story of misery turning to joy. Hopefully many more people will take pleasure in this new version of Simon and Norman's adaptation, appreciating their obvious delight in both nature and nurture and their determination to look for beauty in the least likely of places.
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