Something may look dead, but it might just be biding its time.
That philosophical musing is stated at least twice in The Secret Garden, the award-winning musical now onstage at Arizona Repertory Theatre, so it's bound to be important.
But considering the story, it's stating the obvious. I guess it doesn't hurt to be reminded. And for Mary Lennox, the young girl around whom the story is built, it is probably a new idea.
Still, the idea echoes hollowly throughout this production. Although certainly not dead, the show never seems fully alive, either. I kept expecting the play to leap to life after biding its time considerably, but it never did. It felt unfocused, without a clear and welcoming context. I never felt emotionally engaged. This garden was stingy with its secrets.
Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's book, The Secret Garden, which was published in 1909, the musical's libretto was written by playwright Marsha Norman, who also penned the lyrics. It is through these lyrics that the story is told. The music was composed by Lucy Simon. It found a Broadway home in 1991 and was a big winner in that year's Tony Awards, winning Best Book of a Musical, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Daisy Eagan, who at age 11 was the youngest female ever to receive a Tony. Heidi Landesman won for Best Scenic Design.
The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox (Erin Asselta), a 10-year-old who has grown up in India, but is orphaned in a cholera epidemic. She is shipped to England, where she becomes the ward of her uncle, Archibald Craven (Patrick Spencer), a dark and grave man who has not recovered from his wife's death 10 years earlier. Lily, who died in childbirth, was sister to Rose, Mary's mother. Misslethwaite, Craven's dreary manor, is run largely by Dr. Neville Craven (Frank Camp), Archibald's brother, who would like to own the manor outright. He is a bitter man, having been spurned by Lily, who chose his brother. He also has been largely responsible for keeping Colin (Zachary Karon), Archibald and Lily's son, locked in a room where he is committed to his bed, having been told that he is sick and will die.
Mary is a spirited child—or she's unruly, depending on your bias—and learns that her Aunt Lily had a special garden that has not been tended since she died. The door to it has been locked by Archibald, because it pains him to be reminded of Lily. Intrigued by what she hears, Mary is encouraged by a sprightly nymph of a boy, Dickon (Michael Schauble), to find the key and help bring the garden back to life. (It's not dead. It's just been biding its time.) The natural world manifests its own rejuvenation, and the garden becomes a source of healing for Colin, Archibald and Mary herself.
The real trouble with this show is that Burnett's book was conceived as a story for children, and it focuses on the relationships of the child characters. Perhaps it was presumed that because it is adults who buy expensive tickets to Broadway musicals, they would want to see more adult characters and themes. So we get Archibald and Neville and their dreary sagas. And then Norman did a strange thing: She made most of the other adults ghosts, or dreamers, as they are called. They serve as a sort of Greek chorus, as well as a musical chorus. They include Mary's parents and their friends in India; Mary's ayah, her caretaker in India; Lily; and—frankly, I don't know who else. At least in this production, they seem added on, not at all an organic part of the story.
In fact, the whole big wham-o opening number was just plain confusing. Part of the problem was that we couldn't understand the words to the songs, which I'm assuming explained who these people were and offered a context for what was happening. It's damned annoying if you don't get the words, and the staging doesn't adequately interpret what's being sung about.
In fact, the orchestra overpowers the singers way too often, which is a shame, not only because it prevents the delivery of pertinent information, but also because most of these student performers have wonderful voices.
There are some good performances. Asselta as Mary is delightful, even though she is a diminutive college senior and not a 10-year-old. Karon, as Colin, is also a college student, but he somehow managed to sing quite well in a prepubescent falsetto. Brenna Wagner as chambermaid Martha was an appealing streak of light for Mary in the first dark moments of her arrival at the manor. And Erica Renee Smith gave Lily a beautiful vocal presence. Schauble as Dickon has a lovely voice, but is not quite grounded enough to be credible. The Craven brothers were solid, but you may want to shake each of them and say: It's been 10 years—get on with your life already.
Patrick Holt's costumes were wonderful, but Clare P. Rowe's set was just not adequate. This is a big piece with many location changes, and that's always a challenge. A set needs to provide not only a place for what happens, but also a visual context that establishes and constantly nurtures the feel of the show.
But perhaps the feel of the show was never adequately defined by director Rob Gretta. He directed last year's Into the Woods and scored, big-time. Here, not so much.
ART's The Secret Garden feels unwieldy. There are some wonderful moments, but they seem disconnected from each other. The play's conflicting dark and whimsical natures are not well-integrated, so the production suffers from a sort of identity crisis. If this play is not dead but just biding its time, someone needs to give it a big wakeup call—now.