'The Secret Garden' in wondrous bloom at Kennedy Center


December 29, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON — No doubt about it -- the secret to "The Secret Garden" has been found.

The most striking aspect of the production currently at the Kennedy Center is the weeding, pruning and rearranging done by the musical's creators since the show's 1991 Broadway opening.

Back then, although "The Secret Garden" was distinguished by composer Lucy Simon's lush score and designer Heidi Landesman's equally lush Victorian Valentine-style sets, the story line was confusing. Now, however, it is no exaggeration to say that, thanks to the further attention of librettist Marsha Norman and director Susan H. Schulman, everything about "The Secret Garden" is blooming.

The result is the rare road show that actually surpasses the Broadway original. And because the plot makes more sense, all of the other already-sparkling elements sparkle even more -- especially such soaring, emotion-laden songs as the male duet "Lily's Eyes"; the sophisticated second act "Quartet"; and the haunting "Come to My Garden." (Praise also goes to William D. Brohn's orchestration, which includes the sounds of such appropriate instruments as the hammered dulcimer and sitar.)

Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved 1911 children's novel, "The Secret Garden" tells the story of Mary Lennox, a little girl who is shipped off to her mournful Uncle Archibald's gloomy Yorkshire estate after her parents die of cholera in India. Roaming the estate, she discovers two secrets -- a locked, neglected garden and an invalid cousin, both of which she restores to health in the end.

From the outset, the device used to bring the show to musical life was the incorporation of a chorus of ghosts headed by Mary's parents and their servants. The ghosts don't appear in the novel, but that wasn't the problem so much as a sense of overall bewilderment about their function, and that of one ghost in particular -- Mary's deceased Aunt Lily.

Though Mary had never met Lily, her ghost opened the show on Broadway, creating an initial confusion that never entirely lifted. But in this reworked version, the ghosts take a clearer and more active part, guiding the action almost as if they were Mary's guardian angels.

The production further benefits from almost uniformly stirring performances, beginning with that of Kevin McGuire, who not only has a magnificent voice but finds new shadings in the role of Uncle Archibald, whom he portrays as a less frightening figure than did his Broadway predecessor, Mandy Patinkin. In turn, this allows Archibald's scheming brother Neville to assume a darker aspect, effectively conveyed by Douglas Sills.

As Mary, Melody Kay demonstrates a maturity, both in her singing and acting, that is as impressive as it is well-suited to the role of a little girl who is old before her time.

Also notable are Anne Runolfsson as Lily and Tracey Ann Moore as Martha, the chambermaid. Only Roger Bart, as Martha's brother Dickon, seems miscast; not only is he too old, he isn't spirited enough for this free-spirited soul.

At its core, "The Secret Garden" is about renewal and rebirth, and perhaps the truest test of the success of this production is the way in which that theme reaches out into the audience. Just as the garden is supposed to be charmed, so is this entire production. In the final scene, when the garden is in full bloom, it's difficult to leave the theater; you want to linger and smell the flowers.


What: "The Secret Garden."

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 31.

Tickets: $27.50-$47.50.

Call: (800) 444-1324.

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