Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's Tony Award-winning adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's famed 1911 children's novel The Secret Garden, playing at Main Street Theater in a smartly minimalist revival, is the only musical that begins with a cholera epidemic. It's a work obsessed with death and gloom, replete with ghostly apparitions that haunt all the major roles. The play has, as its principal adult character, a self-consumed man who has driven himself to the brink of madness over the long-ago death of his wife, during childbirth. In both novel and musical, the Edwardian murk transforms into life-affirming color and light. And there's theatrical magic at work in this production -- in the atmospheric music and the literate adaptation, which weaves the psychological, the phantasmagoric and the rustic twee of Yorkshire moors into a healing, sweet completeness.
This might also be the first eco-friendly musical, as the eponymous garden holds the secret to everyone's wholeness. The little girl with the green thumb is Mary Lennox (Stephanie Styles), orphaned in India after the aforementioned epidemic, who's sent to live with her maternal uncle Archibald (Ilich Guardiola) in his dank, creepy manse on the bleak English moors. Strange cries echo down the corridors, while the ghosts of Mary's parents and her Indian servants swirl about. Distant and preoccupied, tormented by memories of his dead wife, Lily (Ivy Castle), Uncle Archie lets Mary run free, to the displeasure of Archie's brother Dr. Neville (Kregg Alan Dailey), who wants Mary put away at school so he can inherit the property. Watched over by sympathetic maid Martha (Katherine Randolph), kindly caretaker Ben (Jeffrey Lane) and Martha's nature-communing brother Dickon (Michael J. Ross), Mary discovers not only a secluded, walled garden gone to ruin but also Archie's spoiled son Colin (Lucas Postolos), bedridden and going to seed, too. The musical chronicles the miraculous changes wrought by little Mary at lifeless Misselthwaite Manor. At its heart-tugging finale, the garden blooms into life, as does the family.
Having recently sung the title role in New York City Opera's The Little Prince, Styles is an age-appropriate genuine Broadway baby, and her professional stage chops are abundantly apparent. Guardiola plays Archie's inconsolable grief close to the vest. It's hard for Guardiola, as an actor, to do mean. In fact, he's so nice, he's forgotten to put on his hump. Without the disability (something that the other characters even comment on, and something that's part of both the book and the novel), his character lacks motivation, let alone realism. But he sings his melodious ballads ("Lily's Eyes," "Where in the World" and "How Could I Ever Know") with an intense passion that overrules the mysteriously missing lump.
The supporting household characters are embellished by folksy tunes that ground them to the northern heaths of England. Randolph stops the show with her diva-esque turn on "Hold On," Martha's paean to resourcefulness, while Ross supplies leprechaunish charm to bird-talking Dickon, whose love of nature spurs Mary to discover the garden. Dailey gives Neville full-voiced villainy, and Castle supplies Lily's ghost with a shimmering soprano.
With its lilting tunes, a fine ensemble cast, smooth direction from Guardiola and a script unafraid to make us dream, this family-friendly show is a magical treat for children and parents alike.
What a Drag
The reason Unhinged Productions' (Loosely) Lysistrata, Stewart Zuckerbrod's adaptation of Ralf Knig's gay comic book, has any legs at all is Houston theatrical treasure Jimmy Phillips. He plays Hepatitos, "Athens' most famous drag queen," appearing in a slinky silver sheath slit all the way up Broadway, opera gloves and a lacquered bouffant wig. As she croons her naughty nightclub number about Helen of Troy, "Face that Launched a Thousand Ships," she maneuvers her shapely gams around a nearby column and caresses it in a classic pinup pose. One more shimmy and she would literally bring down the house. She brings it down anyway, for whenever Phillips appears -- which isn't often enough -- he resuscitates this moribund romp.
We first meet him in another role, as an SNL "coffee klatch" Jocasta, with owl glasses, tasseled belt and decorative scarf, when the women of Athens secretly meet to discuss the incessant war their men are waging against neighboring Sparta. Lysistrata (Beth Borck) has her own reason for ending the war: Her new girlfriend Lampito (Bridget Krauss) is a Spartan. The women decide to barricade themselves inside the Acropolis, thereby denying sex to the men until they stop fighting. Except for the lesbians and Phillips, this is standard Aristophanes. Wily Hepatitos, though, takes the plan further. Since the men, denied access to their women, are vexed by constant, painful erections, why not institute "emergency homosexuality" into the army?
We know where this is headed: The men, now blissfully gay, decorate their homes with flowers and talk about feelings, while the unfulfilled women bitch. There are a few comically snappy moments as the straight guys go gay -- but the play peters out with clunky exposition, repetitive subplots, a superfluous hetero couple planted in the audience and an unsatisfying conclusion. Of the floundering cast, only Stephanie Wittels, as frustrated Myrrhine, knows what to do. It's Hepatitos's show from the get-go, thank Zeus.
More music would soften the rough edges and punch up the static talk -- but not more of composer Charles Baker's music. His tunes, indistinct and colorless, have no Broadway sass. Flat and uninteresting, they do no justice to Zuckerbrod's double-entendre lyrics.
Like an archeological dig, Unhinged Productions' world premiere is littered with interesting shards and potential promise. All that's needed is to put the right pieces in the right order, so it looks more like a vase -- or a comedy.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.