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A Spoonful of Saccharine

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The Secret Garden

Apple Tree Theatre

Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel was first published in 1911, but it's thriven right up to our millennial moment, as if our hunger for magic had increased with progress. Because my mother read it aloud to me on long car rides, its wuthering moors, lonely children, and sad love story were as much a part of my personal mythology as the changing landscapes between California and New England. Pulitzer winner Marsha Norman's musical adaptation, compellingly performed by the Apple Tree Theatre company, captures some but not all of the magic, translating Burnett's literary playfulness into music from the heart.

Though the musical version sweetens the characters and adds several ghosts as narrative devices, it remains remarkably faithful to the original. The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox, a spoiled and unhappy little girl orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India and sent to live with her embittered, hump-backed uncle in his cavernous English mansion. There, with the help of Dickon, a Yorkshire peasant, she heals herself, her Uncle Archie, and his son, Colin, creating a family by opening up a long-locked garden and bringing it and its secrets to new life. If your saccharine meter is rising, remember that this is both a children's story and a musical, both genres that mine a thick vein of sweetness and hope that makes them popular as well as populist.

Director Eileen Boevers has staged the work as a chamber musical, without lavish sets or a live orchestra, but the emblematic and sentimental story is still lush thanks to Lucy Simon's arcing music and the cast's focused, lyrical performances. Despite the occasional overmiked effect (echoey ghosts and the spatial dislocation of voices coming through speakers), the simple staging keeps the focus on the relationships Mary develops. And the performers fill the space with their voices and intensity. As Mary, 11-year-old Heather Johnson performs naturally and sings wonderfully. A long list of credits marks her as a professional child, and although she never achieves Mary's extremes of crankiness and joy, her work is direct and plain enough to give the adult actors the space to create the story around her. Jessica Boevers as the servant Martha, Guy Adkins as Dickon, and David Studwell as Uncle Archie are particularly strong.

Most disappointing are the omnipresent ghosts, Mary's parents and her uncle's wife, the person who had once cultivated and loved the secret garden. Despite excellent performances, these roles were so baldly used for musical and narrative continuity that I spent too much time observing the architecture of the adaptation. And Norman and Simon condescend to the audience, embodying the lost love of the lonely characters as guardian angels whose sweet songs are the impetus for healing. Archie's dream of his dead wife, a short incident in the novel, has been expanded to justify duets and trios and make everyone's loneliness sweeter. These spirits surely deserve better than to hover on our earthly plane--they can touch their charges only in dreams, and so spend their time fondling the air, singing plaintively, and reenacting remembered conversations to explain past traumas.

Their songs focus the story's tension into a rush toward reconciliation that reduces even Dickon's charms and invocations to mere moments in a too-visible master plan. The magic of the garden, which Burnett called "a sort of rapturous belief and realization," is haunted by these trapped spirits. They mark the musical's central weakness: it's always sweet, and sometimes perky, but it's never rapturous. There isn't enough darkness to make the light of healing bright--there are too few dense, unresolved harmonies and too many quick musical reconciliations.

Of course we always wish that the magic of healing and hope will be easy and clear. Maybe that's why I sometimes cried during a crescendo or a reassuring melody. But on the whole I found myself wondering what this high-quality production would have been like if Norman and Simon had found a way to express the determination and courage at the root of Burnett's characters. If they had, maybe the dozing children in the audience would have found it easier to stay up past their bedtimes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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