Maybe I would have liked the current revival of the 1991 Tony-winning musical “The Secret Garden” better if the book of the same name, upon which it’s based, hadn’t been one of my childhood favorites.
Or maybe I’d have loved the musical — as the opening night audience certainly seemed to — if playwright-lyricist Marsha Norman had managed to turn Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, published in 1911, into adult fare in a cleaner, leaner way.
But the TheatreWorks production plays right into Norman’s excesses. It’s a sentimental, feel-good affair, too glitzy to be emotionally engaging.
Set in the early 20th century, the story traces the transformation of fretful, spoiled little Mary Lennox into a bona-fide mensch.
After her parents die of cholera in colonial India, Mary is sent to creepy Misselthwaite Manor in the bleak Yorkshire moors as the ward of her Uncle Archibald. But Archibald’s too depressed by the death of his young wife, Lily, to take much notice of the orphan girl.
Meanwhile, there’s the strange sobbing that Mary hears in the night, and a mysterious walled garden that calls to her, and the free-spirited nature-boy, Dickon, and his warm-hearted chambermaid sister, who befriend Mary and help change her life.
Norman expands the relationships among the adults, as ghosts from the characters’ past lives — Lily, Mary’s parents — waft across the stage, but too often to be truly effective.
And Mary’s journey feels disappointingly hurried, the transitions skipped over in the story’s haste to get to the uplifting part.
The most pressing problem, though, is the generally artificial acting: the cast, under Robert Kelley’s normally modulated and sensitive direction, skews toward the broad, the antic, and at times the gratingly hyper.
It doesn’t help that the two children, both of whom sing and move quite well, do not yet have the most basic acting skills— listening and reacting in a natural manner — for their important roles.
Only Joe Cassidy, sympathetic as the melancholy Archibald, is authentic. A tender scene in which he reads a story to his sleeping son, and a soulful duet with his ghostly (and, for some reason, perennially smiling) wife, are especially touching.
Still, the actors’ singing voices are pleasing and powerful and do justice to Lucy Simon’s songs, some of which are hauntingly beautiful and fiery.
The handsome production owes much to Joe Ragey’s set design with its Indian embellishments, wing-flapping robins and lush garden décor, and to Fumiko Bielefeldt’s detailed and charming period costumes.
The Secret Garden
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays- Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 31
Tickets: $19 to $72
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org