Ask any gardener. Working the earth is good for the soul. Health professionals promise that digging and planting will lower your blood pressure. Philosophers and novelists have touted the healing power of nature for centuries. Candide chose gardening for his “best of all possible worlds” and Frances Hodgson Burnett made a garden the centerpiece of her children’s novel, THE SECRET GARDEN.
Burnett’s stories were wildly successful in the late 19th and early 20th century. Popular films of the ‘30s and ‘40s renewed interest in her work but most people these days recognize THE SECRET GARDEN because of the Broadway musical. Jane Staab and Susan Kosoff have revisited the novel and fashioned a new musical from the source material. Their SECRET GARDEN (at Wheelock Family Theatre through February 7th) simplifies the tangled plot of the Broadway version, restores the core of Burnett’s story and makes the songs themselves part of the narrative.
The musical opens with Mary Lenox’s arrival at lonely Misselthwaite Manor and her immediate impression of the place: “No, I Don’t Like It.” The catchy tune (which I’ve been humming since) sums up the whole plot, simply and effortlessly. She doesn’t want to be in England under her uncle’s care and he doesn’t much like the idea either. Only the maid seems happy to interact with the girl.
With little amusement for Mary at the edge of the forbidding moor, she follows the grumpy gardener about. Mary befriends the unfriendly man and with a robin as her only playmate, she decides to plant her very own garden. (NOTE: Don’t hurry out for refreshments at intermission until you witness Mary’s garden miraculously bloom before your eyes. It’s one of the “secret” surprises in Matthew Lazure’s grand Victorian set.)
Kosoff’s smart book and clever lyrics (like the amusing notion and play of time in “Let’s Do It Now”) and Jonathan Goldberg’s gorgeous orchestrations of Staab’s lovely music lift their GARDEN head and shoulders above the gloomier Broadway version, in my opinion. It’s a whole lot more enjoyable for children: The two in my party, ages five and seven (ordinarily a hard sell) sat glued to their seats, waiting for the story to unfold.
The relationships Mary forges give the story its redemptive spirit. Kosoff, as director as well as writer, gets fine performances from everyone. Katherine Leigh Doherty (fresh from her Broadway appearance with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC!) makes Mary a force to be reckoned with. She wins over the crusty gardener (Neil Gustafson) and soon they’re inspiring each other (“Tha’ an’ Me Are Alike” is cheeky and charming).
Jennifer Beth Glick radiates kindness as the maid whose affection for her young charge is unconditional. Jacqui Parker as the severest of housekeepers and Russell Garrett as the distant, depressed uncle even manage to soften under Mary’s indomitable influence. Andrew Barbato lights up the stage as the country boy who talks to animals and knows their secrets. Ellis Gage gets lots of laughs as Mary’s sickly cousin whose temper tantrums she simply will not abide. (Composer Jane Staab even has a wee cameo as the tyrannical boy’s nurse.) And if that’s not enough to entertain us, the country boy brings on an adorable lop-eared rabbit which draws plenty of oohs and ahs from the audience.
THE SECRET GARDEN reveals its metaphors on the technical side of the production, too. Stacey Stephens creates soft, supple garb for the country folk and stiff, starched Victorian garb for the housekeeper and her employer. Franklin Meissner, Jr. gives the secret garden its very own light and the cold manor house, its lack thereof. Don’t miss Wheelock’s delightful promise of spring.