The setup: Late Victorian children's novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is the typical story of a couple of more or less orphaned kids pluckily figuring out how to thrive and then transform the useless adults who were supposed to be responsible for them. One of Burnett's later works, the book's informed by her own experiences and passions and eventually outstripped even Little Lord Fauntleroy in popularity.
1991 found an oddly popular musical version of The Secret Garden enduring on Broadway for 709 performances. I say "oddly" for several reasons that will come up later, but playwright Marsha Norman did skillfully manipulate audience emotions with her libretto, which nabbed a Tony over that for Miss Saigon, as did the problem-solving set by Heidi Landesman (also trouncing Miss Saigon -- something I like to note because musical Tony winners don't always face much competition, either critically or commercially). The show's now at Arizona Broadway Theatre, enjoyable and nicely performed, if somewhat uncanny by nature.
See also: Little Women: The Broadway Musical at Gilbert's Hale Centre Theatre Is Sweet, Nostalgic, and Deeply Weird The execution: I recommend reading the book, because it's really magical. Should you read it first? Well, although the stage script departs from it in ways that are well-executed and actually make a lot of sense, the book might help you follow the somewhat incoherent details of the play's plot. (I don't find those details critical -- the show communicates, in my opinion, what it's supposed to -- but you know whether or not you or your companions are the kind of people who will fixate on some confusing point like "Where's her mother?" to the extent that I will hear you wondering it across the dining room and have to repress the urge to yell back, "Dead of cholera!")
On the other hand, Mr. Curtains never did read much children's lit (although now that he's bilingual, he reads it in two languages, as a study technique), and he found the play easy to follow and, to my surprise, actually enjoyable. If you already have enjoyed the novel, will the play suffer? Maybe, but not necessarily. My own quibbles were not on the topic of literary faithfulness.
A server chatting with a table near us asked whether the parties had read the book. "You should probably know," she told them, "that the people dressed in white are spirits." Oh, God. If you ever write a play, don't count on a waitress (or anyone else not onstage) to ensure that people understand it. She was right, as a matter of fact, but a) that's not in the book (not that she said it was) and b) it winds up being rather useless information. They sort of die off in the first couple of scenes. You can tell (I'm not making this up) because they start waving red handkerchiefs around. (P.S. One of them is the mysteriously absent mother. Duh.)
A British remount turned much of the chorus back into human beings, keeping only the dead parents as spirits. Variety still didn't like it all that much, but I would be interested in seeing how it's different.
Composer Lucy Simon is no Stephen Sondheim; she isn't even Andrew Lloyd Webber. However, she periodically makes the female chorus rant at a high pitch for protracted intervals in a way I think those gentlemen might have inspired. Even in the solos, many lyrics are unintelligible, but in this particular show, there's plenty of dialogue and even I didn't mind thinking of the music (including the small, kickass live orchestra) as merely music, not poetry I needed to follow.
I think someone might have seen Mr. Curtains fiddling with his hearing aids and sent one of the sound crew to check in on us during intermission. That staffer mentioned that the assisted listening devices available to the audience are particularly designed to make the lyrics stand out from the instrumental arrangements.
I want to serve you folks as well as possible, so I recently had my own hearing screened (okay, it was free). Sadly, it turns out that my hearing is nearly flawless, so I didn't want to understand all the shrieking any better; fortunately for Mr. C (in more ways that one) it is the higher frequencies of women's and children's voices with which he has some trouble. The cast, bless their hearts, along with the designers, are doing all of this weird stuff absolutely perfectly and beautifully. This preview clip illustrates why I might have wanted to go face-down into my tablecloth; if you can tolerate it, this is a show you will probably like just fine. It starts with the spirits in a rare moment of, I'm not kidding, relative composure:
You should know that mere seconds before that man sings about how "strangely quiet" it is, the chorus was in full, purposefully dissonant fortissimo about a nighttime rainstorm. So I had to swallow a guffaw, and then I got the distinct impression that the two men loved Lily and that the girl has her hazel eyes. I got it right away, but I continued to be given it for some time. Yes, they sing and act well. I wish one of the few songs I could understand had been about something. I am a raging bitch.
Many things are good. The young actors who play Mary and Colin are excellent. (There are three of each; I assume each set does quite well.) I had been concerned about their casting, because Mary is in almost every scene, and 11-year-old Daisy Eagan's performance on Broadway won the show's third Tony. But no problems there.
Jordan Wolfe is a charmer as Yorkshire lad Dickon. The story of people's damaged souls healing by exposure to nature's beauty and common sense is an alluring and affecting one. And the show works for audiences of all ages except, I would say, the easily bored on any part of the spectrum.
It's difficult to portray the deeply sensual, naturally slow-moving narrative of Burnett's novel on stage. Norman's choices make each character's loss more tangible and compress the timeline while adding a bit of suspense and fleshing out some of the characters more. The locations, which, on the page, are virtually boundless both indoors and outdoors, are kept open and in motion here to suggest that characteristic as much as possible.
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The Secret Garden is really about, in my opinion, discovering the power of The Big Good Thing, as Dickon's mother called it in the novel. (Burnett had become a Christian Scientist as well as a lover of gardens.). This musical makes it more personal, almost claustrophobic. But that's the kind of literature we're accustomed to in this century, and it might be the level on which it works best. Certainly the characters are relatable and one does look forward to what will happen next, and that makes an acceptable theater experience.
The verdict: This show is full of challenges, and ABT meets them. If you're curious about seeing it, you're not likely to see it done with better production values.
The Secret Garden continues through Sunday, May 11, at 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Dining and non-dining admission are available. Prices vary with demand but start at $41 to $65; purchase here or at 623-776-8400.