Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" is an ever-popular novel that seems aimed at women. It's a love story, and a tale of an orphaned girl who struggles with -- and defeats -- a pair of well-born Englishmen whose thick-headedness (that's Archibald) and greed (take a bow, Neville) is surpassed only by their stubbornness. It's the 100th anniversary year of the novel and the 20th of its musical version, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon, and in some respects, it's a precursor of the more strident feminist speech that came later in the 20th century.
Now playing at Stages' Kirkwood site, it's an absolutely delightful production, with Michael Hamilton's direction as exciting and imaginative as at any time in his 25 years of work with the company. The first scenes move with a staccato snap as Mary Lennox discovers that her parents have died in a cholera epidemic in India, and that she must travel to England to live with an uncle. . Matthew McCarthy's lighting and James Wolk's sets delineate the epidemic, the panic, the reaction of the survivors and move everything along rapidly, while Dorothy Marshall Englis' costumes, as always, are rich and impressive. Mixing a cast of real people, in real color, and "ghosts," mostly in white, worked well
Simon, the sister of singer Carly Simon, has written a serviceable score, pre-recorded in the usual Stages manner, and Peter Lockyer (Archibald Craven), Kelly McCormick (Lily, the woman he loves), Julie Cardia (Martha, a feisty maid) and Joseph Medeiros (Dickon, her brother) lead the way in that department. Cardia's broad English accent works well, and she handles comedy nicely. By the way, her twin sister, Janna, stars in the title role of "Victor/Victoria," the next Stages production.
The current production, which runs through Aug. 21, actually is an improved version of the original Broadway show, which had a St. Louis run in the '90s. After two years in New York, the Royal Shakespeare Company convinced the writers to do some retooling, and the result is an improvement; the show is tighter, less treacly and more like Burnett's original, with greater emphasis on the young people.
Alexis Kinney is a charmer as Mary, afraid of her strange uncle, used to being a child of privilege, with Indian servants everywhere to make her life easy. She's spoiled and not afraid of using the temper tantrum as weapon, but Jon Olsen, as Colin, her cousin, takes that armament to new heights. There were several occasions when old parental buttons were pushed to the point where I was ready to leave my seat and apply my hand firmly to his.
Medeiros and Cardia were impressive as servants, with the former's characterization of Dickon, who loves the garden, feeling warm and gentle. She was bright and brash, a servant who knew her place, didn't like it and was ready to push forward. Lockyer showed the pain of losing the love of his life so early in the marriage, but it was hard to envision him as so easily taken in by his brother. Joe Vincent, as Ben the gardener, was warm and wise, as one would expect.
"The Secret Garden" provides good entertainment and keeps the tone of a book that many people have read. Song and dance are fine, with a nod to choreographer Dana Lewis, and it's a very pleasant evening.
The Secret Garden is a Stages St. Louis production at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, running through Aug. 21