The dead people are singing up a storm in this haunting yet often pre-fab musical. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, The Secret Garden is built around the eponymous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. And while Great Lakes Theater employs many fine voices in this production, directed by Victoria Bussert, the repetitive songs and the predictable, largely humorless script eventually serve to wear down any audience members seeking a bit more nuance.
Most of the aforementioned ghosts are in the head of young Mary Lennox, a girl who lost her parents and many other friends to a cholera epidemic in India. So she’s moved back to England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, a man afflicted with a hunchback who’s mourning the loss of his own wife Lily a decade before.
Sure, it sounds depressing, but the show would benefit from hewing a bit closer to the even darker original story. That book details how self-centered and nasty Mary’s parents were, and how that turned Mary into a pint-sized hell on wheels when she arrived at her uncle’s estate. All that is soft-pedaled in this musical, with Mary pouting prettily at the start until a trio of jovial and perceptive servants (are there any other kind?) bring her out of her mini-funk. And then, to top it all, she manages to rescue Archibald’s son Colin from his own chronic illness.
Mary is guided by her chummy chambermaid Martha (Sara Masterson), Martha’s brother Dickon (Colton Ryan), a lackey on the estate who teaches Mary how to talk to the animals, and old Ben (Dougfred Miller), the gardener who spouts rural wisdom and knows about the secret garden that Lily used to tend. And that is where Mary is headed, to save herself and some others, including the ghosts who are finally allowed to stop singing and proceed with their dirt naps. Depending on your tolerance for fantasy, this is all wonderfully touching or insufferably twee.
As Mary settles into her new life, a Greek chorus of white-clad ghosts meander about: singing songs, walking with measured steps and casting knowing glances over their shoulders. It’s lovely enough, and the singing by Jillian Kates as Lily is stunning. But the symbolism—referring to the memories we all carry with us—becomes a bit obvious and tiresome.
While the material itself can get on some nerves, the performances under the direction of Bussert are blameless. As Archibald, Stephen Mitchell Brown sings beautifully and captures a fragment of the magic he manufactured in last year’s Les Miserables. Indeed, it seems he’s about to do the world’s first trans-character transition, from Archie to Jean Valjean, during “Where in the World,” a very Les Miz-sounding ditty.
Playing the kids, Giovanna A. Layne is more downbeat than downright rotten as Mary, which makes her transition a bit less dramatic. But she does an admirable job overall, as does Warren Bodily as sickly Colin. And Tom Ford hisses effectively as Dr. Neville Craven, scheming to take over his brother’s estate.
All the villains and good guys are neatly delineated in this piece, which makes it fine for kids but a bit less than engrossing for adults. In fact, when a nasal Cassandra Bissell shows up as Mrs. Winthrop later on, it’s a treat. Even though she’s a stock character in a brief scene, the harsh schoolmarm finally brings out the worst in Mary and the audience applauds—relieved from the avalanche of all that heart-string plucking.
Still, the music is splendidly performed, the period costumes by Charlotte M. Yetman are handsome, and scenic designer Jeff Herrmann’s entrance into the garden glows like a pathway to heaven. It all may make you want to go out and work in the dirt—not such a bad idea, after all.
The Secret Garden
Through October 31 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.