THE SECRET GARDEN music by Lucy Simon, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, directed by Anna Linstrum. Presented by David Mirvish at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King West). To March 20. $40-$110. 416-872-1212, mirvish.com. See Listings. Rating: NN
While I appreciate seeing family musicals where the heroine isn't a perky Disney princess, The Secret Garden comes as a disappointment. Based on the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, the show is certainly ambitious, but it's neither musically nor dramatically compelling, and it's a tough sell to people unfamiliar with the book.
After losing her parents in an Indian cholera epidemic, Mary Lennox (played alternately by Ellie Coldicutt and Sophie Kavanagh) is shipped to a gloomy Yorkshire manor, where her cold, hunchbacked Uncle Archibald (Caspar Phillipson) lives with his even colder brother, Dr. Neville (Graham Bickley) and a colourful staff ready to provide some much-needed comic relief.
No sooner does Mary arrive than she's nosing her way through the stony edifice's deep dark secrets, most of them involving Archibald's dead wife - and Mary's aunt - Lily (Sophie Bould). She's also determined to find Lily's beloved secret garden, which you just know is going to have some symbolic resonance.
The problem with this show, originally written in 1991, and the current production from the Edinburgh Festival, is in the telling. Marsha Norman's book features scenes that often awkwardly juxtapose time schemes, featuring characters from the past that we never learn to care about.
Lucy Simon's music studiously draws from the English tradition - with a bit of the Raj thrown in - but never provides a memorable tune. And Francis O'Connor's set is the very definition of busy, a series of stony blocks continuously changing like a theatrical Rubik's Cube.
The performances are merely adequate. Phillipson and Bickley strain their voices in the show's best-known number, Lily's Eyes, and I wish director Anna Linstrum had got the precocious Coldicutt to add some shading to her many emotional outbursts.
The best work comes from Lauren Hood as knowing maid Martha, and Jos Slovick as her brother, the gardener Dickon. And since this production comes from the UK, the accents for once sound authentic.