Francis Hodgson Burnett's 1910 children's novel, "The Secret Garden" became a classic of the genre almost from the moment of its publication, and since then has spawned a number of cinematic and stage adaptations, culminating in Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's hauntingly rhapsodic 1991 Tony Award winning musical, here presented as the second offering in Village Theatre's 2004-2005 season. With its exotic, gothic inspired atmosphere, lush, romantic score and resonating themes of redemption and rebirth, "The Secret Garden" is a evocative portrait of a young girl's attempt to find happiness through the simple act of putting seed to soil.
Those more intimately familiar with the novel will no doubt bemoan how much Norman's book deviates rather significantly from Burnett's original both in tone and text, particularly the mawkishly sentimental streak that runs throughout the play, punctuated in large part by the repeated appearances of the spirits of the dead, most notably that of Lily (Katie E. Tomlinson), the creator of "the secret garden" discovered by Mary (Rachel Beck), the little orphaned girl sent to live with her reclusive uncle Archibald (Dallyn Vail Bayles), who in prototypical "Rebecca" like fashion pines for his deceased wife of some ten years past. In addition, much of the book's complex religious and mythological symbolism is supplanted by brazenly simplistic thematic treatments, reflected in Norman's rather unmemorable lyrics, which in addition only barely hint at the rich, tautly structured narrative found in the source material. And so little attention is actually paid to the garden itself in this adaptation that Marys gradual transformation of it, and its subsequent effect on the inhabitants of Misselthwaite Manor is rendered anticlimactic.
On the other hand, Simon's score is densely textured with elements of Indian, traditional English and Celtic folk, and lush symphonic arrangements, which while often dragged down by Norman's weak lyrics, nevertheless provide some of the most memorable material in the piece, and which along with Carey Wong gauzy, ethereal scenic design, Melanie Burgess' gorgeously realistic period costumes, and lighting designer Alex Berry's moody effects, effortlessly transport the audience from the exotic otherworldliness of colonial Bombay, to the smutty gray of Victorian England, to the brackish Yorkshire moors, and finally to the long neglected garden that represents the emotional and physical centerpiece of the play.
Village Associate Artistic Director, Brian Yorkey has assembled a top-notch cast, although Norman's book again sadly underutilizes much of the 18 member ensemble, for the most part relegating them to little more than scene shifters, ameliorated to some degree by Kathryn Van Meter's languid, dreamlike choreography. In the few instances where they are allowed to break out, the audience gets a hint, albeit a tantalizing small one, of the vocal range they're capable of achieving. In particular, Beth DeVries, as Mary's mother Rose, Marc delaCruz and Kari Lee Cartwright as Marys Indian guardians, and Kat Ramsburg as a Yorkshire maid make the most of their minimal musical turns.
With the bulk of the show falling squarely on the shoulders of the leads, Yorkey has filled these crucial roles with a lineup equally as impressive as his under used chorus. Tomlinson shines with a clear, ringing soprano that warms every scene in which she appears. Village newcomer Bayles displays a rich, full low baritone that grows in depth and power throughout the course of the play, reflecting both Archibald's maudlin, compulsive mourning, as well as his gradual acceptance of his wife's death, and re-emerging sense of vitality. Joshua M. Bott performs yeoman's duty in the thankless role of Archibald's brother Neville, a two-dimensional antagonist given fullness by his brooding manner and occasional flashes of introspection. Beck, as the orphaned Mary, has a somewhat flat vocal delivery in many of her musical numbers, but delivers an engaging performance as she grows from a spoiled child to an independent, self-directed adolescent.
What is most impressive about Village's "The Secret Garden" is not that Yorkey and company have put together such an impressive production, but that they have done so with the rather limited raw materials they have to work with. While not a show that will have audiences singing the tunes on their way out the door (most would be hard-pressed to remember most of the lyrics ten minutes after they're uttered), but it is one that will leave a warm glow in the heart, like the scent of a beautiful flower that lingers long after the brightly colored petals have fallen to ground.
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