However much time you’re able to spend in the garden these days, it’s nothing compared to the classy cast of the musical “The Secret Garden,” the story of an orphaned and uprooted grade-school girl who becomes entranced by the notion of a locked garden on her uncle’s Yorkshire estate. The show opened in an elegant Arden Theatre Company production Wednesday night, with characters almost always in or near a garden — singing about it, dreaming about it, pining for it, surprised by it, flogging it for every possible blossoming metaphor.
But hold on. If you’re off to see this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s story, still popular especially among young girls, best to leave your skepticism in the theater lobby and maybe your glasses, also. Looking too clearly at “The Secret Garden” brings its ever-changing tone into focus. The show, which hit Broadway in 1991 and ran over two planting and harvesting seasons, begins as a dark and realistic tale and ends up as a sunny, fantastical one. I was never sure how I should open myself to it along the way.
At some point I decided, as a newbie to “The Secret Garden,” that Marsha Norman’s book and lyrics and Lucy Simon’s sweetly melodic songs mean to conjure enchantment but can’t quite hit the mark. They’re burdened with gloomy characters and Freudian fol-de-rol, and the superb Arden production is a classic example of the way a smart artistic team takes an okay piece and turns it into an A-1 night.
This particular version began as a concept developed by the Arden’s artistic leader, Terrence J. Nolen, with master stage-effects designer Jorge Cousineau, a proven team on other Arden shows. They came up with a multi-level stage with stairs on each side so that characters who are dead can look on and inspire those who are living, and sometimes come down on stage level to mingle, even to dance.
Cousineau designed the set, and encircled the stage’s arced front with a turntable that houses an expansive diorama – a miniature of every setting in the play. A videographer sits in front of that turntable, moving it from scene to scene, each one projected lifesize at the rear of the stage. Each projection looks at first like meticulous animation but it’s not – it’s seamless, precision camerawork, with everything from moving clouds to changing light. (Solomon Weisbard is the show’s lighting designer and Daniel Perelstein provides the rich, crisp sound design.)
Add to this a large cast and an 11-piece orchestra conducted by Amanda Morton that includes two of the performers (Sarah Gliko and Scott Greer), plus Nolen’s direction that turns several one-dimensional characters into forces for reckoning, and you have a show that demands serious consideration by Barrymore Award judges for this season’s best musical production.
Bailey Ryon, the endearing young actress who plays the little girl locked out of the garden, comes to the Arden from another unusually dark show about a little girl, the Broadway production of “Matilda the Musical.” She fills her demanding role easily – if her character, Mary Lennox, were real, she couldn’t ask for a better avatar than Ryon.
Poor little Mary Lennox is being raised in India, where a cholera epidemic kills her parents (James Stabp and Sarah Gliko) in 1906. She ends up in Britain with her only living relative, a rich uncle (Jeffrey Coon) enfeebled by depression ever since his wife (Elisa Matthews) died. She had kept a garden on the estate, which he’s locked up since her death about a decade back. The man’s brother (Jim Hogan) is a physician who lives with him and cares for his affairs, which include bringing Mary Lennox over to live as a ward on the estate.
Lennox finds herself in the middle of this situation, as desperate as it is boring to her – until she meets a sympathetic housekeeper (Alex Keiper), the housekeeper’s sprightly brother (Steve Pacek), a groundskeeper (Anthony Lawton) and her own first cousin, a surprise to her (Hudson Orfe, another young actor who adds much to the production). This cousin cannot walk and one of the show’s most jarring turns comes when our little heroine develops sudden magic powers that hearken back in India. In the fashion of old-time preacher Oral Roberts, she’s empowered to heal the sick. It doesn’t happen that way in the book — more down to earth, so to speak.
Uh-oh, here I go, skepticism out of check. Many people – devotees of the book, I am sure – will find “The Secret Garden” a story about rejuvenation: uplifting and spirited. Others may find it unstoppably sentimental … and spirited. I admit to being one of them, and when the cast came together in the finale with yet another musical invitation to “come to my garden,” I couldn’t stifle a laugh. Garden, schmarden, what’s the big deal? But others around me were with the cast the whole way. And we all, I bet, were impressed by the way the Arden put “The Secret Garden” together.
_“The Secret Garden” is extended through June 26 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street just north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.