I remember when The Secret Garden stretched its legs at my nearby performing arts center at SUNY Purchase, not so long before it began its inaugural 1991 Broadway run. Now, it’s at it again as composer Lucy Simon and writer/lyricist Marsha Norman retool the now-classic on its way to another Broadway run.
In Theatre Under the Stars’ new production, which plays at the Hobby Center October 10–22, the most buzzed-about change is a new song, “The Man in the Moon,” in which grieving hunchback Archibald Craven (Jeremy Kushnier) sings to his ill son Colin (10-year-old local Julian Lammey, a hoot in a role that’s not necessarily written to be one). It replaces “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” a sappy affair that no one will miss, but which isn’t really improved upon here. (The omission of Colin’s song, “Round-Shouldered Man,” however, is a relief.) Unfortunately for this production, innovation is not often improvement.
Of course, this is one show, based as it is on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel, unlikely to undergo major plot changes. Mary Lennox (Bea Corley) still begins the show as a spoiled product of the Raj, raised in India as much by her Ayah (Anisha Nagarajan) and the Fakir (Johann George) as by her father Captain Albert Lennox (Jason Forbach) and haughty, distant mother Rose (Brittany Baratz). That changes when cholera hits during a dinner party, resulting in a room full of bodies whose clothing goes from colored to all-white to demonstrate their passage. They remain as ghosts in nooks and crannies of every scene, sometimes tucked away, sometimes, as in the case of glamorous Lily, at its very heart.
Mary is sent to Misselthwaite Manor, Craven’s Yorkshire estate, where he once lived with his wife, Lily, Rose’s sister. Now, the chandeliers are covered and the door to the garden where she died locked. Craven’s doctor brother, Neville (Josh Young), has sequestered Archie’s son Colin to bed, claiming severe illness in perhaps the first-ever literary appearance of something like Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
The truth is, Neville would prefer they all disappear and leave him the house. But bringing Lily’s garden back to life with the help of gardener Ben (Seán Griffin, whom I contend the production may have actually scooped out of a garden in Yorkshire, despite credits that include appearances on Northern Exposure and Murder, She Wrote) and 12-year-old “conjurer” Dickon (adult Charlie Franklin), changes sharp-tongued, entitled Mary into an almost alarmingly sweet, placid girl bent on curing her cousin. You probably know what happens after that. If not, you still won’t be surprised.
But you don’t need to be. In Norman and Simon’s hands, The Secret Garden is less about plot than the (often literally) haunting atmosphere. Even when I was a 10-year-old girl myself, I never thought Mary’s material was the strongest or most interesting. This is no fault of Corley, who plays the role with a strong voice and emotional depth provided by her relatively advanced age of 12.
New arrangements by music director Rick Fox rely more heavily than ever on strings—plucked and strummed more than bowed—giving a meatier feel to the music. In the cases of Kushnier and Young, this is a very good thing. Kushnier, best known for originating the role of Ren in Broadway’s Footloose and playing Roger in Rent, has an instrument strikingly similar to that of West End/rock star Colm Wilkinson, sans speech impediment. Young, who played John Newton, the author of the song “Amazing Grace” in the recent Broadway musical of the same name and Tony-nominated for his role as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, is a tenor of outstanding depth. The two voices are compelling on their own, but when they entangle in the classic “Lily’s Eyes,” in which Neville reveals his own obsession with Archie’s wife, it is a thing of soaring, near-erotic power.
Unfortunately, other singers suffer in comparison. As Lily, Lizzie Klemperer is anachronistically tanned and toned, with a matching voice that belongs more in a pageant than singing legit material. It’s a jagged sound in her lower registers, with a rustle that portends vocal damage in its higher ones. Other performers, particularly Forbach as Mary’s father and Franklin as the girl’s friend Dickon, simply lack the fortitude to compare to bigger voices that often sing their roles.
Perhaps one of the show’s greatest stars, though, is lighting designer Mike Baldassari. He carefully trains blue-toned lights on the dead to demonstrate the veil that separates them from the living. In scenes that recall when the ghosts were alive, they’re bathed in an other-worldly bright yellow that makes it clear that those memories exist beyond this mortal coil. He and director David Armstrong pull off a neat trick with a scrim near the end of the show that results in an unexpectedly emotional result.
That said, many of the changes to the show rob it of its power. The creepiness of ghosts moving to synthesized sitar music, an emotional state that exists only when seeing a well-crafted production of The Secret Garden, is mostly missing here. In part, that’s because the spirits have been radically silenced. When they do indulge in complex choral stylings, it’s now largely wordless, which is an interesting idea that proves to be a misfire. Saddest of all is the loss of the quartet in act two in which Archie and Neville’s voices blend with those of Rose and Lily from the afterlife.
But a Secret Garden that sometimes feels worn at the edges is better than no Secret Garden at all, and Halloween couldn’t be a better time to tangle with these Victorian shades. Just don’t expect to be too spooked this time.
The Secret Garden, thru Oct. 22. Tickets from $40 (plus fees). Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Sarofim Hall, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-8887. More info and tickets at tuts.com.