Charlie Franklin as Dickon, Sean G. Griffin as Ben Weatherstaff and Bea Corley as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.
Charlie Franklin as Dickon, Sean G. Griffin as Ben Weatherstaff and Bea Corley as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.
Photo by Melissa Taylor

The Secret Garden Offers Beautiful Voices Swathed in a Predictable Plot

Grammy-winning composer Lucy Simon may be the elder sister of pop/folk icon Carly Simon, but in her Broadway debut, The Secret Garden (1991), she's under the heavy musical influence of European theatrical powerhouses Claude-Michel Schönberg and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Although swathed in wisps of English country airs with a tinge of Riverdance, her music for this adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's book is pregnant with soaring ballads à la Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but we've heard these chord progressions before.

I swear I heard – and saw – more than a little homage to Jean Valjean in Uncle Archibald's paean, “A Bit of Earth,” and to both Valjean and arch-nemesis Javert in “Lily's Eyes,” a searingly beautiful duet with Archibald's brother Neville. Maybe I mean the Phantom and Raoul, or Chris and Kim in Miss Saigon, or Norma and Joe in Sunset Boulevard. No matter the weird mix, Simon's antecedents are true-blue Broadway. It's a sound that's dramatic and affecting, rising to the usual crescendo that signifies a key change, and ending on a stratospheric high note (always in falsetto) that begs for applause. This is standard Broadway composition since the late '80s.

The Secret Garden is the only Broadway musical I know that begins with a cholera epidemic and then proceeds to get darker.

Little Mary (12-year-old Bea Corley, who should be signed by MGM talent scouts, if that movie studio still had talent scouts) is the lone survivor of an epidemic in colonial India, and is forthwith shipped off to the bleak moors of Yorkshire to live with her cranky uncle Archibald (Jeremy Kushnier) in the spooky halls of Misselthwaite Manor.

“I see dead people,” would be an appropriate subtitle to this musical, since everybody seems to be haunted by his or her past and ghosts are ever-present. The chorus gets quite a workout, because they're never off stage for long before their deathly pallor is required for a quick scene change. Dead people singing.

What is surprising about this musical is that there are no surprises. You just know that intrepid little Mary, who begins as spoiled little snot, will soften and bring healthy change to the dyspeptic house on the moors. You know hardhearted hunchback Uncle Archibald will melt under his niece's velvet touch; bedridden Colin, Archibald's sickly son (Julian Lammey), will be cured and walk into the light; evil Uncle Neville (stirring tenor Josh Young, 2012 Tony-nominee for the revival of Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar) will be sent packing; the servants will be paired off neatly; and ghostly mom (Lizzie Klemperer) will finally bid her family a fond farewell and go back into the mist where she belongs. It's all so tidy, like the secret garden that finally blooms when the family heals. As I said, no surprises.

In this tripartite production from Theatre Under the Stars (Houston), The 5th Ave. Theatre (Seattle) and Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) – in hopes of a Broadway revival – Garden is slick and glossy under Anna Louizos's Edwardian designs of arches, filigree, and Hello, Dolly-esque passerelle; Tony-winner Ann Hould-Ward's (Beauty and the Beast) hobble skirts, and Mike Baldassari's taser lighting. Gloomy chiaroscuro bursts into colorful bloom at the finale.

Sorry to say the musical never bursts into anything, except when Charlie Franklin, as leprechaun-like Dickon, happens to be onstage. He's a real song-and-dance man, a veteran of this production from Seattle and Washington who knows how to enlarge the stage, even when pitted against a sound design and English accents that become garbled and unfathomable. His twee character doesn't have much to do, but Franklin does it superbly. (John Cameron Mitchell, who would later write and star in the fabled Hedwig and the Angry Inch [1998], originated the role of Dickon on Broadway.)

Watching Burnett's Edwardian melodrama, I couldn't help but think, Why didn't 20th Century-Fox purchase this vehicle for Shirley Temple in the '30s? It would have been perfect for her: feisty orphan tyke, mean adults out of Dickens who get their comeuppance, and a triumphal ending full of grace and forgiveness. MGM filmed it in 1949 with Temple's cinema successor, Margaret O'Brien, but the enchantment was long gone, as was Shirley.

Marsha Norman, Pulitzer Prize-winner for 'Night Mother (1983), won a Tony Award for her book adaptation of Secret Garden, but her vision is as nebulous as the ghosts who populate the musical. She is, however, the first playwright to shoehorn gardening tips into Halloween by way of Bombay.

The Secret Garden continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through October 22 at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $30 to $108.

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