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This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 12, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Secret Garden'

Rarely, if ever, does a children's story that is neither folk nor fairy tale make it onto the stage. Equally rare is the children's story that endures for 87 years and counting. Yet Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 novel, "The Secret Garden," has accomplished both.

The novel's musical adaptation has book and lyrics by Marsha Norman (whose grim, hard-hitting play "'Night, Mother," won a Pulitzer Prize), and music by Lucy Simon (sister of the ever-popular Carly Simon). The musical opened on Broadway, in 1991, where it won three Tonys, and went on to tour internationally.

Now staged by the Princeton Opera Association, "The Secret Garden" opened at the Peddie School in July, then moved to the Washington Crossing Open Air Theater, where it can be seen through Saturday, August 15. The voices in this production are superb, and the acting equally impressive.

It's easy to see why Burnett's story endures. (It was twice, in 1949 and 1993, made into a movie.) In our cynical and violent age, this novel, written when the belief in childhood innocence prevailed, brims with sweetness and light. And goodness. Our century has read the story of children alone who become savage and murderous in "Lord of the Flies"; more recently we've read and watched news media accounts of children shooting and killing their schoolmates. "The Secret Garden" is an antidote to all that. There are no evil characters.

The novel begins with the a tale of a lonely, sour, spoiled, and imperious little English girl, Mary Lennox, orphaned in India by a cholera epidemic, who is sent to live in Yorkshire with her emotionally suffering and generally absent uncle, Archibald Craven. Led by a robin, Mary finds the key and door to a secret garden that belonged to her beautiful, dead aunt Lily, Craven's wife. Mary also finds a local lad, Dickon, who talks to animals, and who, with the aid of the secret garden, brings Mary back to robust health. Mary and Dickon then, with the help of the secret garden and its magic, cure another spoiled, arrogant, commanding child, Mary's bedridden cousin Colin, of his imagined physical and actual afflictions.

Burnett skillfully ties her tale to the arrival of spring and its magic of bringing to life the garden, which, like its mistress, had seemed dead. Spring brings back to health two children who seemed wasted of body and dead of heart. And brings back to happiness the boy's emotionally distant and usually absent father. The story appeals to something in the human soul, the longing for life, new and renewed, that makes it a winner every time.

Norman has given this early 20th-century story a late 20th-century take, dwelling on motivation, psychology, and on dreams, memories, imaginings, and ghosts. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish which onstage characters are ghosts, and their aimless weaving through the musical is tiresome.

Though one hesitates to quarrel with success and Tony awards, it needs to be said that Norman has virtually eliminated the garden's bringing Mary back to health and so has eliminated the magical transforming power of the garden with its infusion of sunshine and the magic of spring. In the novel, the garden plays such a large part in the children's healing; it is almost a character in its own right.

Laura Andruski has cast the show well and keeps it moving. On opening night at Peddie, in addition to some amplification problems, the live orchestra was too loud at times. And though we found the set a bit of a hodgepodge, its eventual opening, triptych-like, into the garden's interior, is ingenious.

Any flaws in the musical's re-telling of Burnett's story are redeemed by the joyous closing scene, set in a once-secret garden now resplendent with roses. The father, led by the specter of his dead wife, returns to the garden to find his son healthy and playing. The moving scene even surpasses the novel's ending by resolving Mary's fate, too. It radiates happiness and brought tears to many in the audience.

On opening night at Peddie, Alexis Powell, 15, played Mary Lennox, the principal character in the novel, and to a lesser extent in the musical. Alexis, who can make you forget she's a trifle old for the part of a 10-year-old, moves from pouting imperiousness to awareness to joy with engaging conviction. On alternate nights her sister Lindsay Powell, 10, plays Mary.

The role of Colin is also shared. Michael Crea, whom we saw, and Louis Klapper, play the role on alternate nights. Crea was near perfection as he portrayed the boy's rajah-like tyranny, hysterical fear, final rejuvenation, and reconciliation with his father. The fierce arguments between the two children, Mary and Colin, were electric and gripping.

Robin Leigh Massie, as Lily, appears at the show's opening, as if in a framed painting. She sings in a particularly clear and stunning voice and moves with wraith-like beauty through several scenes. Archibald Craven, is ably played and excellently sung by Rick Joyce.

Andruski, who did considerable research for the show, tells us that when the novel was came out in 1911, it was controversial. Children were not supposed to be willful or disobedient, they were to be seen and not heard, she says. What a difference a century makes.

-- Joan Crespi

The Secret Garden, Princeton Opera Association, Open Air Theater, Washington Crossing State Park, 609-737-1826. Adults $7 & $9; children half price. Wednesday, August 12, through Saturday, August 15, 8:30 p.m.

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