There is a great irony in the fact that the British, whom we colonials regard as so refined, have just sent us a musical that is vulgarity incarnate, and we Americans, once a world symbol for crassness, have just turned out a show of considerable refinement.
"The Secret Garden" is, however, so relentlessly genteel that it shortchanges the vitality of Frances Hodgson Burnett's story. It is a musical in which, at any given moment, there are likely to be more dead people on stage than live ones. I have nothing against the dead, but I'd prefer them to be more "spirited" than they are here.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "'Night, Mother," Marsha Norman gave the suicidal character nothing to live for. In her adaptation of Burnett's novel, Norman has also short-shrifted the claims of life. She has taken the central image of the novel, a garden - a profound and ancient symbol of life - and filled it with a mood of death.
In Burnett's 1911 novel, a nasty girl, Mary Lennox, whose parents died of cholera in India, is shipped off to live with her reclusive, brooding uncle in England. On his estate, she finds a garden that has been locked for 10 years. In the course of bringing it back to life, she becomes a human being herself; she cures her seemingly incurable cousin Colin, and she even gives her uncle a new lease on life.
This is a fairly simple plot. (In 1988, Theaterworks USA did a 70-minute version that projected the material much more movingly.) Norman and composer Lucy Simon have larded the story with frequent appearances by the ghosts of Mary Lennox' parents and their friends.
The show begins, in fact, with a Dance of Death, in which all these folk, dancing gracefully, are, one by one, confronted with a red handkerchief, which means they must drop out of the circle. In this grim version of musical chairs, no one is left but Mary.
Mary's first glimpse of the garden, presided over by the spirit of her Aunt Lily, is a dream of an Edwardian garden party with the aforesaid cholera victims dancing elegantly. This is an attractive image of Death for someone like myself, who dotes on watercress sandwiches, good tea and waltzing, but I'm not sure it's apt for Burnett's story.
In the book, we watch Mary and her cohorts slowly, arduously bring the garden back to life. Here we see the garden only at the very end of the show.
In Heidi Landesman's design, the garden is not an image of nature renewed, but rather a lush valentine to Victorian styles of illustration.
Throughout, the Indians of Mary's early childhood move auspiciously in and out of Landesman's storybook settings. In an annoying number, the Indians lead The Dancing Dead in some stiffly choreographed ritual movements that start Colin on the road to recovery.
In the novel, Burnett makes astute correspondences between the fakirs of India and a nature-loving Yorkshire boy. Here, Indian mysticism is a trendy, shorthand way of suggesting a much more interesting set of ideas.
At its best, Simon's score has a warm, autumnal glow. There is a ravishing song Lily sings, "Come to My Garden"; a splendid duet for two tenors, and a striking Act Two ensemble.
Often, Simon aims for a folk quality, which she doesn't sustain. Norman's lyrics are intelligent if generally unremarkable. Rebecca Luker, who has a luscious voice, sings "Come to My Garden" beautifully. The duet, "Lily's Eyes," is ringingly performed by Mandy Patinkin and Robert Westenberg.
Norman's book gives both these talented men surprisingly little to do. They only come alive when they sing, which both do with great skill, though the dramatic climax for Patinkin, who plays the crusty uncle, makes all too self-conscious use of his beautiful headtones.
The extremely talented Daisy Eagan certainly captures Mary Lennox' nastiness, but the script doesn't give her much chance to flower into a caring human being. Similarly, John Babcock sings beautifully as Colin, but his recovery and reconciliation with his father are not as moving as they would be if we knew the characters better.
As the Yorkshire people, Barbara Rosenblatt, Alison Fraser, John Cameron Mitchell and Tom Toner all project the proper colors. I only wish their songs were stronger. Michael De Vries' tenor adds to the impressive musicality of the evening.
The beautifully designed and lit "Secret Garden" surrounds the audience in Edwardian enchantment. The musical captures the atmosphere of the book, but not its resilient spine.
Ghosts are everywhere in "The Secret Garden," the 2 1/2 handkerchief pop opera which opened at the St. James Theater last night. There are ghosts of people, ghosts of ideas, ghosts of music, even ghosts of paintings.
The show is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's well-known children's book of the same name. It proves one of decent sentimentality, with visual elegance plus literary atmosphere. But a lot of the dramatic style here is chasing precious little musical substance, despite an adroit smokescreen of heavy-breathing orchestration.
Given a truly excellent cast and a most engaging staging, for some this might be amply sufficient, particularly in a season so paper-thin the gimcrack "Miss Saigon" and her helicopter can be regarded as some kind of musical masterpiece.
The story is set in a Victorian never-never land of Bronte country, with a wuthering wind seeping across the Yorkshire moors. But, as dreamlike prologue, it starts in British India, where a small, pert and spoiled young girl, Mary Lennox (Daisy Eagan), is orphaned by cholera.
She is returned to England to stay with her only living relative, Archibald Craven (Mandy Patinkin), her widowed uncle by marriage and a hunchbacked recluse. Shattered by the death of his beloved wife, he is aloof from his household, even from his invalid son, Colin (John Babcock), who is left to the care of Dr. Craven (Robert Westenberg), Archibald's coolly calculating younger brother.
With the help of Martha, a good-natured servant girl (Alison Fraser), her brother, a nature-boy called Dickon (Tom Toner), and the special magic evoked by the restoration to verdant health of a secret garden, our little contrary Mary makes both her garden grow and Colin happy. That is the story in all its childlike simplicity.
Marsha Norman's diligently clear book and lyrics remain quite faithful to the original, although the story is made more artily mysterious by a population of ghosts, from both India and the moors. The result is a strange piece, not unlike that old Canadian musical about another childhood orphan hero, "Anne of Green Gables," but with the weightier spectral aspirations of Benjamin Britten's chamber opera, "The Turn of the Screw."
Unfortunately, the composer, Lucy Simon, is no Britten. And the music - at its most hand-on-heartfelt - is never more than dull. You might, of course, find yourself going out humming William D. Brohn's important-sounding orchestrations. But not with much pleasure.
Where the show scores brilliantly - if self-consciously - is in the spectacular scenery by Heidi Landesman, who is also, perhaps not quite by chance, the first-named of its 13 producers.
Not since we spent "Sunday in the Park With George" have we had such a painterly exhibition - starting with framing the show with a proscenium taken from Pollocks' penny plain/tuppence-colored toy theaters, and going on to Victorian greeting cards, extravagant topiary, and romantic landscapes that suggest Samuel Palmer.
Terrific stuff, backed up by Theoni V. Aldredge's properly modest costumes. No wonder Susan H. Schulman's direction appeared largely concerned with saving the actors from being bumped into by the scenery.
Although the stage is constantly inhabited by people "not gone - just dead," the performances, including that of the most tangible phantom, Rebecca Luker playing Archibald's late wife, are happily corporeal.
Patinkin sings valiantly and leaves no eye unwetted as the stiff uncle, Westenberg provides a thin-lipped, strong-voiced villain, Fraser and Mitchell (despite their impenetrable attempts at some psuedo-Yorkshire accent) prove attractive as the bucolic siblings, and little Daisy Eagan makes Mary into a candy-sweet but cloy-free charmer.
But the real secret of "The Secret Garden" lies in its colors rather than its sounds. Perhaps one should have a remote control in the theater marked mute - it often works well for TV.
In "The Secret Garden," the new musical at the St. James, a devoted team of theater artists applies a heap of talent and intelligence to the task of bringing Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved children's novel of 1911 to the stage. They have accomplished that basic mission, all right, but whether "The Secret Garden" is a compelling dramatic adaptation of its source or merely a beautiful, stately shrine to it is certain to be a subject of intense audience debate. I, for one, often had trouble locating the show's pulse.
The musical's principal creators -- the playwright Marsha Norman, the composer Lucy Simon, the director Susan H. Schulman, the designer Heidi Landesman -- are nothing if not thorough. With flashbacks, dream sequences and a strolling chorus of ghosts, they explore the meaning of the novel's every metaphor, the Freudian underpinning of every character and event, the spiritual hagiography of its Victorian milieu. From the rococo set, a pop-up period toy-theater that greets the audience upon arrival, to the Act II introspective soliloquies given even to characters who receive only scattered mentions in the novel, this musical leaves no stone unturned in "The Secret Garden." Yet where, to use Burnett's own language, are the Magic and the Mystery that have made the work endure?
At its heart, after all, "The Secret Garden" tells a simple story that is endemic not only to children's literature, but also to such Broadway staples as "The Sound of Music" and "Annie." A 10-year-old orphan, Mary Lennox (Daisy Eagan), must win the love of her distant, widowed guardian, her uncle Archibald Craven (Mandy Patinkin), even as she must find her own soul and self-worth by communing with nature in the locked garden of the uncle's vast Yorkshire estate. In the musical version, this tale's primal pull is often severed at its roots. Burnett had the cunning to keep the uncle a remote, mysterious figure for a third of the book, but since he is played by a star, the show must bring him on (and deflate the suspense) by the second scene. Worse, Burnett's exciting recounting of the obstacles Mary must overcome to enter the locked garden is shortchanged in Ms. Norman's script, and so, eventually, is the garden itself. The actual stage time devoted to this show's equivalent of Oz is brief, and the climactic, moving song about the garden's transforming powers -- the equivalent to the "garden" songs of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" and "Trouble in Tahiti," for instance -- never arrives.
Where Burnett practiced the instincts of a born storyteller, the creators of the musical prefer to intellectualize. Mary's dead parents and Uncle Archie's dead wife haunt almost every scene, lest anyone forget that death and rebirth are themes of "The Secret Garden," and because these ghosts' appearances necessitate echo-chamber sound, supernatural lighting cues and a totemic replay (sometimes in song and dance) of the past, the musical seems to take two clumsy steps backward for each one forward. Only once does this scheme advance the show instead of halting it: in a lovely, early trio, "I Heard Someone Crying," Mary, her uncle and her dead aunt (Rebecca Luker) sleepwalk through the haunted mansion, projecting their own deepest familial longings on the sound of a child's crying deep within the night.
Otherwise, the musical's emphasis on subtext overwhelms the text. Much more so than "Into the Woods," which was as much about Bruno Bettelheim's interpretation of Grimm tales as the tales themselves, "The Secret Garden" favors theme over story, as if it were a learned essay about the book instead of a new version that might speak for itself. That would not be a problem if the characters were as clearly seen in the foreground of the musical as they are during the symbolic pageantry. But the leading players often seem upstaged by loud-mouthed secondary figures -- a chambermaid (Alison Fraser), an old gardener (Tom Toner) -- who pop up at arbitrary intervals to sing cheery, on occasion inspirational musical-comedy ditties of the "Mary Poppins" variety and then disappear until another jolt of enforced ear-to-ear grinning is required.
Though performed with spirit by the young Miss Eagan, Mary never really gets a chance to blossom as a girl in tandem with the garden that stimulates her emotional growth, and her sickly young cousin, Colin (John Babcock), never amounts to more than just another smiling Broadway tyke. Mr. Patinkin, by contrast, is given every opportunity to display the tortured psyche of the lonely, hunchbacked uncle, but by using the same contorted posture (loping walk, dangled left hand) he displayed in his excruciating Broadway concert recital of last season and by excusing himself from the rest of the company's efforts to maintain British accents, he turns "The Secret Garden" into a show about his own contemporary, New York show-biz persona whenever he is at center stage. I'm saddened to report that his trademark gestures -- the squinting of the eyes, the cranking of the voice up an octave in mid-song -- are calcifying into shtick, and they seem to dramatize Mandy Patinkin's notions of ambivalence, not Archibald Craven's guilt and grief. The finale, in which he reunites with the ghost of his lost love in the garden, is as synthetic here as it was heartfelt when Mr. Patinkin performed virtually the same reconciliation with a dead woman in the greenery of "Sunday in the Park With George."
The star's voice is as lilting as ever, at least, and there is other powerful singing by Ms. Luker (who seems too talented to be filtered through sonic effects), the redoubtable Ms. Fraser and that fine actor Robert Westenberg, whose incidental role of a doctor is ludicrously inflated into a quasi-villain to vamp for time during Mr. Patinkin's long absence in Act II. Ms. Simon's music, accompanied by the solid lyrics Ms. Norman often draws from Burnett's own dialogue, is fetching when limning the deep feelings locked within the story's family constellations. But when Ms. Simon descends to a conventional musical-comedy mode, the score falls apart, most notably in some songs for Dickon, the elfish boy who is Mary's unofficial guide to the garden. As sung by the charming, if opaquely accented, John Cameron Mitchell -- unrecognizable after his turn as a wormy student con man in "Six Degrees of Separation" -- the boy's dialect-laden odes to nature sound like Neil Diamond ballads as they might be delivered by Ringo Starr and orchestrated for "Brigadoon."
The cluttered, scattershot approach of "The Secret Garden" to its drama and musical numbers extends to its every element, from the book's insistence on talky clumps of redundant exposition to Ms. Schulman's staging, which regurgitates the nightmare party sequence but not the dramatic urgency of her superb revival last year of "Sweeney Todd." The gifted Ms. Landesman's collage-like scenic design, which embraces sources as varied as Victorian line drawings, Joseph Cornell boxes and the spooky imagery of the director Robert Wilson, is fabulous to look at but not hospitable to actors, who have to fight to be in focus despite the exceptionally busy efforts of the brilliant lighting designer Tharon Musser. Since the choreography (by Michael Lichtefeld) is scant and amateurish, "The Secret Garden" has no theatrical means for achieving that graceful, seemingly effortless falling into place that levitates fairy-tale musicals (among others) into enchantment. In this show, the hard work is always apparent; one is constantly aware that the authors are thinking hard -- too hard.
Fanatical devotees of the Burnett novel, young and old, are likely to enjoy the evening anyway, while those who have never heard of "The Secret Garden" or those who don't quite hold it in the same high regard as, say, the "Iliad" or "Charlotte's Web," may be either baffled or bored by it. At its best, this show may not be a transporting entertainment like the M-G-M "Wizard of Oz" or Broadway "Peter Pan," but it can certainly be considered a musical-theater equivalent to a profusely illustrated, and perhaps even more profusely annotated, edition of a children's classic.
Is it too churlish to wish that they turned the pages a little faster?