Why did it take me so long to see The Secret Garden, I wonder? Maybe I resisted because the source material is a children’s book (Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved Edwardian tale of a little girl, Mary Lennox, who is orphaned and sent to live with relatives in a sumptuous but rather bleak manor house). Or maybe by the time the musical opened in 1996, I was already weary of Mandy Patinkin’s special brand of falsetto overwrought-ness. (Patinkin originated the principal male role of distant, troubled Uncle Archibald.) Anyway, in the ensuing 25 years, I’ve regretted the omission — many friends whose taste I respect like the show a lot.
Now, I’m glad I waited — because I can’t imagine a happier introduction to The Secret Garden than the Arden’s beautiful, heartfelt, and visually glorious production.
What co-conceivers Terry Nolen and Jorge Cousineau do is nothing short of astonishing, but the musical adaptation certainly has its own charms. I admire the ambition of Lucy Simon’s score, which favors ensembles over more standard forms, and appropriately often channels British Isles folksong styles. The best numbers are memorable — “Lily’s Eyes,” a duet for two baritones, is the audience crowd-pleaser, but I like Archibald’s haunting ballad, “A Bit of Earth” even more. Marsha Norman wrote the libretto — her lyrics are sometimes prosaic, but she does better with the book, where complex details are cleverly synthesized.
But the piece is never less than engaging, especially in the hands of Arden’s blue-chip ensemble — not a weak link among them. Some of my favorite elements include Bailey Ryon as Mary and Hudson Orfe as her friend, Colin — these two child actors have poise and talent far beyond their years. As Archibald, Jeffrey Coon gives a performance full of his characteristic generosity, and his limpid baritone is in fine form — but the vocal honors here go to Elisa Matthew’s shimmering soprano. There’s splendid support from, among others, Alex Keiper, Sarah Gliko (also playing the piccolo!), Steve Pacek, Scott Greer, and especially Sally Mercer and Anthony Lawton — actors who continue to prove themselves Philadelphia theater’s MVPs.
It takes nothing away from their achievements to say that the show’s trump card is its spectacular direction and design. What Nolen and Cousineau have dreamed up is a breathtaking marriage of traditional staging and technological innovation. My hunch is Nolen is primarily responsible for the actor work and blocking, and his stage pictures consistently capture the austere elegance of an Ingres painting. Cousineau is credited with the video, which astonishes and delights — the magic of theater created literally before our eyes.
I don’t want to say more because the joys of this show should be like the garden itself — a secret that opens only to those who give their hearts to it. And I promise — you will.
The Secret Garden runs through June 19. For more information, visit the Arden Theatre website.