For more than a century, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden has charmed young readers. It’s not what you might expect relative to today’s “young adult” fiction: Mary Lennox, an ornery 10-year-old British girl in Edwardian times is orphaned by cholera in India and returned to England to the care of her withdrawn uncle in a remote Yorkshire manor. She’s frightened, angry and petulant — not the sort of focal point whose circumstances might immediately strike you as family-friendly fare. But as her story unfolds and damaged lives are made whole again, the metaphor of an abandoned garden brought back to life is both charming and heartening.
The novel became a thoughtful, Tony Award-winning musical in 1991, and the Cincinnati Playhouse is presenting it, staged by Broadway veteran Marcia Milgrom Dodge in a gorgeous mainstage production to open its 56th season. Dodge’s concept has moved some distance from a literal staging. Narelle Sissons’ scenic design makes no attempt to recreate the period, but rather surrounds the story with, well, the story. Immense reproductions of pages of Burnett’s handwritten manuscript with a few line sketches hang overhead, and the floor appears to be stacks of paper, some with upturned corners. A desk and several beds that rise from trap doors are more stacks of paper. Costumes by Leon Wiebers evoke the historic era, but the overall effect is impressionistic and sometimes surreal — tall, larger-than-life puppets appear in the show’s opening nightmare as we learn the story of Mary’s parents’ unexpected deaths.
Despite the evident virtuosity applied to every detail of this production and a cast of impressive performers, I’m not convinced that Dodge’s execution of The Secret Garden matches my notion of family-friendly, an initiative that Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison has commendably advanced as one of the principal tenets of his leadership. The story is told in a dense and circular manner — ghosts of Mary’s parents and her uncle’s late wife constantly wander through the action — and without a more literal setting, it’s not easy to follow this story.
While the voices of the production’s singers individually are quite effective, the choral work — especially in the show’s opening scene — is muddied by amplification that makes the lyrics difficult to grasp. As we become more familiar with the central characters, this evolves, and numerous numbers are delivered with passion and clarity. But without a clear foundation, the show’s non-linear narrative makes for slow going.
Nevertheless, there are memorable and deeply moving performances. Caitlin Cohn, a student at New York University, wholly captures the spirit of Mary Lennox; her diminutive stature enables a convincing portrait of a 10-year-old. She is the show’s constant focal point, and her stage presence is always magnetic.
As Mary’s Uncle Archibald, Kevin Earley brings a tortured demeanor to his role; his tenor voice conveys his sense of terrible loss regarding his wife Lily’s tragic death, and his tender song, “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” to his chronically ill son is deeply moving. Earley combines with Adam Monley, playing Archibald’s enigmatic physician brother Neville, for the show’s most powerful vocal moment, “Lily’s Eyes,” revealing their curiously mutual depth of feeling for her.
Other roles have fine vocal moments, especially Brandi Burkhardt’s luminous Lily (“Come to My Garden”), Charlotte Maltby’s feisty chambermaid Martha (“Hold On”) and Cameron Bartell’s charming garden sprite, Dickon (“Wick”). Sariva Getz conducts a seven-piece orchestra that provides ample support for the show’s textured score.
The Secret Garden is a moving, thoughtful musical. Will kids love this production? I suspect not. But if you enjoy deeply emotional onstage storytelling, this is a powerful opener for the Playhouse season.
THE SECRET GARDEN, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 3.