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Singin' in the Rain goes soggy; Secret Garden grows delightful

In the key role of Mary, the lonely orphan girl who blooms as she tends to her invalid cousin Colin, his embittered widower father Archibald and their neglected garden, young Julia Krohn is a revelation. Preternaturally controlled, the child actress is winning even when acting contrary. Though she could benefit from a body mike, Krohn sings worriedly in "It's a Maze," resolutely in "Show Me the Key," sweetly in "The Girl I Mean to Be" and beseechingly in "Letter Song," staying on key and even harmonizing. Her English accent passes muster and her dancing in "Come Spirit, Come Charm" is so self-assured it's no wonder Colin chooses then to step out of his wheelchair for the first time.

As the imperious, frightened Colin, Erik Eisele does a fine job. Joe Kirkendall, deeply sympathetic as the haunted Archibald, is especially effective in how immediate he makes "Race You to the Top of the Morning," a veiled lullaby to Archibald's pain. Mark Arvin, singing so gloriously that he positively beams, is radiant as Dickon, the local lad who befriends Mary. His great goodwill is matched by that of Michelle Holliman's Martha, the kindly housemaid. Inversely, Laura Chapman makes Mrs. Medlock a scarily stern housekeeper. Through burning need, Ilich Guardiola turns Archibald's duty-burdened brother into more than a stock counterpoint, while Susan Kenyon, through a soaring voice, shines as Lily, the memory of a wife Archibald won't let go of. The chorus -- one of the best I've encountered in Houston -- establishes crucial atmosphere, not just through song and movement, but also through demeanor, as if they, too, were characters in the play.

Director Rob Babbitt conveys much via impressions. In his deceptively simple, highly effective blocking, he has the songs and the sentiments take center stage, not concerning himself too much with the accouterments, which turn out to be largely unnecessary (though the literal picture-book backdrops are economically keen). What he spends lavish attention on, instead, are the costumes; they're precious and vital. Though the segues between reality, flashback and fantasy are problematic, and though Mary's opening of the garden door -- the miracle that's the climax to Act One -- is poorly conceived, Babbitt's biggest mistake is how brief he makes the curtain calls. For it's no secret: Main Street's Secret Garden is a garden of delights.

Singin' in the Rain plays through December 17 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 622-TUTS.

The Secret Garden plays through December 23 at Hamman Hall, Rice University (entrance no. 14 off Rice Blvd.), 524-6706.

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