Triple 1991 Tony winner “The Secret Garden” hits L.A. in the middle of its national tour. Show is post-Sondheim, post-Cameron Mackintosh, with all the assets and liabilities that that suggests.
The Shubert’s size adds considerable echo to the actors’ amplified voices, which–with the affected British accents–adds to the overall confusion to those unprepared for the story. Otherwise, this show’s a stunner.
Based on English author Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, “The Secret Garden” is a thinking person’s musical with an ambitious, luxurious set design and loads of special visual effects to pass the time when the quasi-opera gets too complicated for even adults to follow.
The ultimately uplifting story deals with two children who cope with emotional and physical handicaps, death and a kind of resurrection.
Book has been a classic among young people for decades, and it helps to know the story before seeing this sometimes-confusing adaptation. Parents unfamiliar with “The Secret Garden” should be aware of its Dickensian darkness, beginning with a scene in which young Mary Lennox’s entire family, living in colonial India, is wiped out in an attack of cholera.
Mary (Melody Kay, alternating with Kimberly Mahon) survives, and is sent to live with her wealthy uncles Archibald (Kevin McGuire) and Neville (Douglas Sills) in Yorkshire. The brothers don’t get along and are both separated and kept together by Archibald’s young son, Colin (Luke Hogan, alternating with Sean Considine), crippled since birth and tended by physician Neville.
Those are the principals, though several members of the large cast drift in for a song or so, most notably Tracey Ann Moore, as spirited chambermaid Martha; Roger Bart, as her even more spirited brother, Dickon; and Jay Garner, as a gardener. Colin’s mother (Anne Runolfsson) and members of the deceased Lennox household appear as ghosts.
Performances at opening-night show (with Kay and Hogan as Mary and Colin) were uniformly strong; stiffness in several adult characters seems intentional, with Moore and Bart providing welcome relief.
Strongest musical moment may have been Archibald and Neville’s dueling tenors on “Lily’s Eyes,” though Simon’s music occasionally takes on Celtic and even (in Dickon’s “Winter’s on the Wing”) a subtle rock flavor.
Most awkward portion of book comes when the brothers constantly address each other by name, even when nobody else is there (“What are you doing, Archie?””I’m leaving, Neville”).
Heidi Landesman’s sets, scaled down somewhat from the Tony-winning Broadway production, are still magnificent, though–with Tharon Musser’s effective lighting–emphasizing the darkness of the story. Scenery moves in and out of the wings, up and down from the flies and back and forth on the stage; there’s flash powder, thunder, lightning and fog. Theoni V. Aldrege’s costumes are equally striking.