First staged on Broadway in 1991, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s musical is now preparing for its return with a production co-created by Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
There’s a bit of magic in “The Secret Garden,” the musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, but is a bit enough?
First staged on Broadway in 1991, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s musical is now preparing for its return with a production co-created by Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. This truncated revival, directed by 5th Avenue executive producer and artistic director David Armstrong, is slated for an eventual Broadway slot.
The new staging has an undeniable visual appeal, with Anna Louizos’ sumptuous scenic design evoking secrets both alluring and foreboding. Verdant tangled vines sprawl across the premises of a Gothic manor, where inside, darkened hallways and austere furnishings portend something scarier — or sadder. The same goes for Mike Baldassari’s excellent lighting design, whose niftiest feat is illuminating the show’s ghostly chorus in a brilliant shock of otherworldly white.
‘The Secret Garden’
by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon. Through Saturday, May 6, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$161 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Among those ghosts are the parents of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Bea Corley), sent to live with her only surviving relative in Yorkshire after a cholera outbreak strikes in British-ruled India, the only home she’s ever known. That relative, her uncle Archibald (Tam Mutu), isn’t exactly an ideal guardian, as he spends his days shut in his mansion, mourning the death of his wife, Lily (Lizzie Klemperer, displaying exceptional vocal clarity).
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Mary is an entitled brat (and Corley affects a brittle patrician haughtiness like an old pro), but her redemption arc is not long, and she begins to soften early, largely thanks to the caring attention of chambermaid Martha (a winning Daisy Eagan, who won a Tony playing Mary in the original Broadway production).
Also on hand to spark the transformation are the folksy influences of gardener Ben (charming Seán G. Griffin) and Martha’s brother Dickon (annoyingly sprightly Charlie Franklin), who clues Mary in to the existence of a hidden garden somewhere behind vine-covered walls. But where is the door, and where is the key that opens it?
Those aren’t the only mysteries that unfold in the first act, which also finds Mary hunting for the source of wails echoing throughout the manor. There’s an ever-present tension between the ethereal and the corporeal in the show’s first half, as Mary and Archibald are haunted by spirits, including Lily, who comes to life in a massive portrait hanging on the wall.
That eerie mood of grief personified, reinforced by Simon’s lush and longing score, dissipates in an unfocused second act that often loses sight of Mary’s development as a character.
The emergence of Archibald’s doctor brother Neville (Josh Young) as the primary antagonist is a contrived bid to churn conflict, and growing attention toward Archibald himself only underlines his mopey indecisiveness. (No slight toward Mutu and Young, whose fine voices are at their best entwining in stirring duet “Lily’s Eyes.”)
Beloved though it is, the source material doesn’t do Mary any favors either, shunting her to the side and allowing the story’s climactic moments to belong to Archibald’s disabled son Colin (Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger and Coleman Hunter, alternating).
In the end, access to the ostensible protagonist’s emotional breakthrough is as hermetically sealed away as a walled-off garden.