An exceptional production of a so-so musical deserves plenty of praise this week. That musical is “The Secret Garden”, the 1991 Broadway Tony winner with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon. The new revival is currently on stage at ACT of Connecticut serving as the Ridgefield theatre’s final production of its admirable fifth season.
Based on the classic 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, “The Secret Garden” is set in the early twentieth century where we meet Mary Lennox (Charlotte Ewing), an English girl born and raised in India. When her parents die from a cholera outbreak, Mary is sent to Yorkshire to live with her Uncle Archibald (Brian Golub), a hunchback mourning the death of his wife, Lily (Katie Diamond). It is there that Mary blossoms, inspiring others, warming up to her distant uncle and bringing new life to Lily’s long-neglected garden.
At ACT, Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine has elegantly directed this problematic musical. Marsha Norman’s heavy-handed book, which adds a Greek chorus of ghosts that continually seem to be berating the audience with information, loses much of the novel’s magic better captured in the excellent 1993 film. And while the stage version offers a pleasant musical score, it only truly soars twice. That would be the powerful duet, “Lily’s Eyes”, between Archibald and his brother, Neville (Matt Faucher) in act one and “Hold On”, sung by Martha, a chambermaid (Laura Woyasz), in act two.
What works wonderfully at ACT, however, is Levine’s beautiful staging augmented by state-of-the-art scenic (David Goldstein) and visual design (Camilla Tassi), gorgeous costuming (Leslie Bernstein) and magical lighting (Charlie Morrison). There is also not a weak link in the sterling company of actors. Ewing is a plucky delight more than holding her own with the adult professionals on stage. Golub’s wounded Archibald is often heartbreaking and Faucher somehow makes sense of the conflicted character that Norman has adapted here. Woyasz is a lively, funny presence and her singing of “Hold On” cannot be overpraised. The entire company sounds vocally strong and looks terrific even as they compete with the orchestra’s volume which, as usual at ACT, is turned up to 11. That orchestra, by the way, is simply magnificent under Bryan Perri’s astute direction. All said and even with less-than-great material to work with, ACT comes up aces with this polished season finale.
“The Secret Garden” continues at ACT of Connecticut, 36 Old Quarry Road in Ridgefield through June 11. For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 475.215.5497 or visit: www.actofct.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.