by Clark Groome
When the musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” opened on Broadway in 1991. I found it confusing, dark and probably inappropriate for some of the children in the audience. It was also clear that author Marsha Norman had added some elements to Burnett’s original, which added to the show’s dark nature and hard-to-fathom story.
The original story tells of Mary Lennox, an 11-year-old whose parents died in the 1906 cholera epidemic in India. She is sent to England to live with her sour Uncle Archibald, a hunchback widower whose son is, allegedly, very sick.
Archibald has locked up his late wife’s favorite garden, a place that Mary, with help from a couple of friends on Archibald’s estate, revitalizes and turns into something of a minor-league Lourdes for the ailing Colin.
The elements that Norman added to the book are the ghosts of Mary’s parents and Archibald’s wife. Not only do they add confusion to the tale, but they also put a rather depressing focus on death and the sorrows that the principal characters face.
The original production was a depressing if popular show. “The Secret Garden,” is currently being given a creative mounting at the Arden Theatre, where it will play through June 19.
While the show is still dark and depressing until, literally, the last five minutes of the two-and-one-half-hour production, the Arden’s version is blessed by Jorge Cousineau’s imaginative scenic and video design. He utilizes small models under the lip of the stage and projected onto a screen at the back of the action to recreate some of the locales in the story. It’s effective but still doesn’t do away with some of the dreariness of Norman’s story.
Lucy Simon’s score has some lovely moments and some that break through the tedium, but alas there’s not a song in the show I would call memorable, even after seeing the show three times.
The best part of the Arden production is the cast. Bailey Ryon, who was one of the Matildas in the Broadway show of the same name, is just about perfect as Mary.
Local favorite Jeff Coon is at the top of his game as Uncle Archibald. Steve Pacek and Anthony Lawton bring what little warmth and humanity the story has to their roles as Mary’s friends, Dick and Ben. The rest of the troupe is vocally and theatrically strong.
Lighting designer Solomon Weisbard far too often leaves his principals in shadow. Olivera Gajic (costumes) and Daniel Perelstein (sound) round out the design team. Both do admirable work.
“The Secret Garden,” as adapted for the stage, is a challenge for any director, and the Arden’s Terry Nolen does an admirable job with the very difficult material. While he doesn’t overcome the book’s faults, his production is far more accessible and interesting than the original.
For tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org