'Secret Garden' blooms with lavish life

February 17, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Although the streets remain coated with remnants of last week's snow and ice storms, a beautiful garden is in bloom at the Lyric Opera House.

The national touring production of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's "The Secret Garden" is easily the most lavish, polished show that's come to the Lyric under the aegis of Baltimore's relatively new presenter, Performing Arts Productions.

Perhaps the best way to describe this magical musical, which is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's novel, is to use the title of one of its songs. "Wick" refers to something, such as a dormant plant, that has a spark asleep inside it.

In keeping with this, "The Secret Garden" begins with death. In the first scene, little Mary Lenox's parents succumb to cholera in India. Mary is sent to live with her uncle, a hunchback still mourning his wife, who died giving birth to their son, Colin, a decade earlier.

Designer Heidi Landesman's glorious sets initially suggest a fold-out toy theater; they're colorful, but the colors, like Tharon Musser's lighting, are often dark.

In the end -- after Mary has discovered the part of herself that is "wick" and used it not only to restore a neglected garden to life, but also to restore the health of her bed-ridden cousin, Colin -- the lighting is bright, and the scenery is as cheerful as the pop-up Victorian valentines it resembles.

Although this show has been touring for some time, its production values have not diminished, and there are also several fine performances.

As the brooding uncle, Kevin McGuire is more sympathetic and less quirky than his Broadway predecessor, Mandy Patinkin. And as a spunky chambermaid, Amanda Naughton earns well-deserved applause when she bucks up Mary's spirits with the rousing, "Hold On."

The children's roles are double-cast. Andy Bowser, an 11-year-old from Bowie, Md., who played Colin on opening night, affectingly depicts the child's transformation from a petulant invalid into a healthy, wide-eyed boy. As Mary, Lydia Ooghe is satisfactory but seems a bit too mature for a little girl -- even one about whom the housekeeper says, "I've never seen a child look so old."

In a show in which all of the elements blend together to create a lovely whole, the score stands out as especially enchanting -- an imaginative confluence of nursery tunes, folk music, East Indian influences and sophisticated romantic numbers, the most stirring of which is the dark duet "Lily's Eyes."

This production is also noteworthy for another reason. Norman's book diverges from Burnett's novel in a number of respects, most obviously by adding several ghosts, including those of Mary's parents and aunt. When the show opened on Broadway, its plot was fairly muddled. However, writer Norman and director Susan H. Schulman continued to hone the story, and the result is a road production that is not only easier to follow than the Broadway original, but also more clearly presents one of the show's major themes -- that even after death, our loved ones remain with us in spirit.

'THE SECRET GARDEN'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 tonight through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: (410) 889-3911

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