By Tristan Lejeune
I’ll give it this: Far better books have been turned into far shittier musicals.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 The Secret Garden remains her most popular novel, but essential Edwardian literature it is not. A newly orphaned young girl is sent to live with her rich, reclusive uncle at his mansion on the moors of Yorkshire (sigh…), where she joins those who wander the candlelit halls in their nightgowns before discovering old secrets and learning new lessons about grief, hope and … I dunno, proper rose-pruning techniques?
— The Worst Muse (@WorstMuse) July 25, 2014
The Secret Garden, running until the end of year at Shakespeare Theatre Company, has gorgeous sets, wonderful singers, painterly lights and talented musicians. But it doesn’t have strong enough bones for all the histrionics and sentimentality it packs on, to say nothing of the clunky songs, wince-inducing choreography and, yeah, I’ll say it, racist Hindu ghosts.
Like the book upon which it is based, this Secret Garden, directed by David Armstrong, might be best for children. At least a couple were in attendance Monday night, and they seemed to have a fun time with it. For the over-14 set, however, there are red flags.
Pregnant women shouldn’t climb tall trees, and roses don’t grow from them. “Archibald Craven” sounds like what you write down for the hunchbacked widower character while you’re thinking of his actual name. Colonial cultural appropriation may have been OK before World War I, but it isn’t now.
The sumptuous sets, designed by Anna Louizos, will take your breath away, both as the interiors of moody Mistlethwaite Manor and as its verdant grounds. Stairway silhouettes climb off into thin air. Thick vines crawl offstage left and right. Pieces glide in and out like ice skaters up on one foot. It’s all lit impressively by designer Mike Baldassari, who switches from dappled to drop-spot and back seamlessly, without neglecting Sidney Harmon Hall’s rousing lightning effect, too. But should lights and scenery be the first things audiences talk about walking out of a theatre?
It won’t be the songs. Actors Anya Rothman (Mary), Michael Xavier (Craven), Lizzie Klemperer (Lily), Daisy Eagan (Martha) and Josh Young (Nevill) all have mellifluous voices, but at their very best, the ditties here remind you of tunes from better musicals. Those moments are rare, however. Most of the melodies and essentially all of the lyrics range from ho-hum to actively bad. One of multiple gardening songs begins thus: “When a thing is wick, it has a life about it / Now maybe not a life like you and me / But somewhere there’s a single streak of green inside it.” Mary isn’t the only one crying uncle.
Xavier in particular tears into his role like it was a fine steak, though he’s rewarded with gristle in his teeth. “I don’t have a home,” he growls to a letter he’s holding in his hand. Nah, just a 15-bedroom house with acres of land. Also an apartment in Paris.
Atop it all there’s a thick layer of melodrama, like sludge, that smothers out emotional nuance. Invalid children shrieking in the night, faces of the dead appearing on busy streets — more than once the stage is literally crowded with ghosts.
Chill. Out. This isn’t Wuthering fucking Heights. As Mary begins to find long-lost keys, both literal and metaphorical, the story builds up some momentum, but the Heidi-esque reveal at the end doesn’t have much conflict behind it, and there’s no enigma in any of the play’s enigmas.
Plucky orphans solving mysteries.
— The Worst Muse (@WorstMuse) November 13, 2014
Still, it looks great. This is the kind of garden where they grow fully arranged bouquets, never mind the botany, never mind the weather.