Virtually nothing grows on the moors, a housekeeper at a gloomy Yorkshire estate tells orphan Mary Lennox at the start of “The Secret Garden,” the musical running through Dec. 31 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and based on the novel by the same name.
There isn’t much life inside Misselthwaite Manor either, as 10 year old Mary (Anya Rothman, pitch perfect here as a girl “with a sharp tongue and terrible dreams”) discovers. She’s been sent to the ancestral home of Archibald Craven (West End star Michael Xavier), an uncle she’s never met, following the death of her parents from cholera in colonial India. She arrives in England to find her uncle perpetually grieving the death of her aunt Lily and unwilling or unable to assume the role of single parent to 10-year-old-son Colin (Bethesda’s Henry Baratz), locked away in a hidden bedroom and suffering from a dubious spinal ailment.
Were you expecting a children’s show?
While “The Secret Garden” is a story told from a child’s point of view, this show, with book by Marsha Norman (“The Color Purple”), and music by Lucy Simon, of the Simon Sisters, is adult fare. Winner of several 1991 Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Daisy Eagan, the youngest woman ever to win a Tony), “The Secret Garden” is heavily influenced by the work of Jewish composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim – his mood, motifs and music.
Like “Into the Woods,” “The Secret Garden” contains a darkly melodic score, characters who turn to nature for redemption and healing, and ghosts. Not even “Sweeney Todd” had a Greek chorus of cholera victims.
And, like “Into the Woods,” this show is overgrown in places. This STC production is a reimagining for the show’s 25th anniversary, and I wish the creators would trim more of the verge. One song, “Race you to the top of the morning,” is shorn, and that’s a start.
There are still too many minor characters populating Misselthwaite Manor, and nearly every one of them, down to the gardener, the chambermaid and the chambermaid’s younger brother is given a solo. Most of these songs (“Winter’s on the wing”) are redundant and none of them are especially tuneful.
In an interview for Broadway.com, Simon revealed that the song “Lily’s Eyes,” a duet about jealousy and loss (passionately sung here by Xavier and Tony nominee Josh Young) was the first to come to her in the writing process. I believe it. She’s at the top of her gifts when the score calls for darkness (“I heard someone crying,” “How could I ever know”). The lighter songs sound like halfhearted imitations of “Mary Poppins,” and they distract from what’s truly compelling about this material – the characters’ attempts to process troubling emotions and their eventual recovery due to the restorative powers of nature.
This is a musical about post-traumatic growth, and it calls for performers who are willing to toil in their private Gethsemanes and get their hands dirty. Director David Armstrong has assembled just such a cast and crew.
Especially noteworthy are Xavier as Archibald and the gifted soprano Lizzie Klemperer as Lily. Daisy Eagan, who returns to this show as Martha the chambermaid, is a genial presence here. Sean G. Griffin makes something solid out of a small role as a gardener. Anna Louizos’s scenery evokes a Gothic romantic fairy tale, and is never cartoonish. And if Michael Baldassari’s ethereal lighting design doesn’t win the Helen Hayes Award, then the system is rigged, as politicians say these days.
The Yorkshire moors may be barren, but, thanks to this ensemble, the Sidney Harman Hall is a place where things grow.
Geoffrey W. Melada is a former editor of Washington Jewish Week.