KPBS AIRDATE: August 26, 1992
Some books for kids aren’t just for kids. And some have staying power across the generations. “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is one of those books. Last year, when the novel turned eighty, it resurfaced as a smash, award-winning Broadway musical. Now the touring company is in town, and if you loved the original, you’ll probably be entranced by its latest incarnation.
It’s magnificent to look at, and brings back all the characters you remember so well. First and foremost, the feisty young Mary Lennox, orphaned in India by a cholera outbreak, then sent to live with her uncle in Misselthwaite Manor, a massive, haunted mansion on the gloomy, wuthering moors of Yorkshire , England . The place is owned by humpbacked Uncle Archie, who stalks the halls at night, tormented by the memory of his wife, who died in childbirth ten years earlier. The product of that pregnancy was Colin, a sickly brat confined to bed. And then there’s Dickon, the charmed local boy who talks to birds and helps all things to grow, including Mary and Colin.
There are ghosts, too, lots of them. Mary’s parents and their friends and servants, and Uncle Archie’s dead wife Lily, who exerts her post-mortem powers on Mary and Colin and Archie, driving them back to her hidden, abandoned garden.
The children’s revitalization of Lily’s neglected garden is the metaphorical message for respecting your roots, clearing away debris, nurturing new growth and cultivating beauty even in the harshest environment. When Mary finds the key to the garden, she unlocks everyone’s heart, and helps them all to heal.
Sure, you could think of some songs to go along with that, right? So could Lucy Simon (Carly’s sister), but unfortunately, none of them can be hummed or remembered. Many of the songs are sentimental, even solemn. Some are folksy and some are operatic, but none as memorable as the voices that carry them. Melody Kay, as Mary, has a vocal capacity well beyond her years. And she does a delightful turn with Roger Bart as Dickon, in a song called “Wick,” a Yorkshire expression that explains when something’s ready to bust out and blossom forth. (MUSIC…)
What blooms with most abundance in this production is the scenic design, a fantastical, opulent slice of Victoriana designed by the immensely creative Heidi Landesman. This is, by the way, an award-winning, all-female creative team — from the original author to the modern-day lyricist (Marsha Norman), the director, producer, composer, and designers of set, lighting and costumes. It’s a marvelous technical team, even if the book and music leave a bit to be desired. But nothing negative can be said about the kids or the rest of the cast.
It’s no secret — this is a “Garden” of visual and vocal delights.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.