"When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen," begins "The Secret Garden," Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1910 novel about a girl who was born in India but was sent away to her British uncle's after her parents died of cholera. "It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another." Her mother was a "great beauty" who "only cared to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people" and had never wanted a child. "So when she was a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby she was kept out of the way, and when she became a sickly, fretful, toddling thing she was kept out of the way also." The servants gave her everything she wanted to keep her quiet and "by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived."
And so the notion of an antihero—bored, alienated, unlikeable—has been introduced to hundreds of thousands of young readers for over a century. Mary Lennox is such a horrid little beast at the beginning of the novel, that kids have the simple pleasure hating her full-force. (There is joy in that.) And then, she gets a smidge interested in the world outside herself (a wild-child boy she befriends, a wild-walled garden she discovers) and grows more complicated. Finally, she succumbs to a nature lover's joie de vivre as she brings this secret, walled garden back to life, forgets herself entirely in activities and friendships with the wild boy and her invalid cousin, and becomes a likeable person. In other words, there is a plot that charts the protagonist's emotional journey from antihero to heroine.
This journey is missing from the Center Stage production of "The Secret Garden." The musical, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, focuses heavily on the ghosts of Mary's parents who die of cholera in the first few pages of the novel so that viewers never get to properly hate Mary Lennox (Caitlin Cohn). They feel sorry for the child from get-go—poor little orphan girl pining for the parents that haunt her dreams—and never see Mary in the same harsh light as Hodgson Burnett portrays her in the opening passage.
This musical, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, is not a Disney-fication of the story—indeed the tunes would be catchier, if it were—but rather a flattening of the characters into their archetypes and broadcasting, rather too soon, the good girl that Mary is inside.
The play opens with Mary trapped in a tangle of mosquito netting on a sparse set designed by Narelle Sissons. Giant, 10-foot-high puppets—reminiscent of the Bread and Puppet Theatre's imposing figures in the New York Halloween Parade—circle and haunt with an allusion to the fevered days that took Mary's parents and most of their Indian servants, singing a haunting, "Mistress Mary, so contrary, how does your garden grow?"
Mary wakes from her nightmare when British soldiers scour the abandoned house and discover the 9-year-old. "Where's my Ayah?" she demands, asking for the servant who has raised her. The soldiers look through her, talking to each other: "I believe there is an uncle somewhere."
Interestingly, this production holds on to India's mystical influence on the child and a chorus of Indian-costumed characters and puppets weave in out of the action—with Mary herself doing an Indian dance in her garden to invoke the magic of the gods as her invalid cousin Colin climbs from his wheelchair and walks for the first time ever. Colin (Anthony Frederickson), who has a clear, pure voice, gives a strong performance as a mercurial dictator—at one moment spiteful, the next, pathetic—who rules from his bed. "I'm selfish because I'm dying," he says to Mary at one point, full of self-righteous indignation. (Frederickson is the only real child in the production; Mary and wild-child Dickon are played by slight adults who often grasped for the quick symbols of childhood—the stomping of feet, for example—rather than the discovered realities.)
But these shortcuts were common. The lyrics skated along the surface of pathos when Mary's Uncle Archibald (Kevin Earley) sang a paeon to his dead wife's "hazel eyes," that failed to surprise us with rhythmic twists, slant rhymes or onomatopoeia and took my thoughts, spacing out, to Sweeney Todd's clever paeon to his wife's "yellow hair" instead.
But perhaps this show was not for me, the adult fan of the children's novel? Entirely possible.
To meet it on its own terms, I arranged in advance to interview a few tweens in the lobby after the show ended (at two hours and 20 minutes, "Secret Garden" was clearly not intended for younger kids).
Eleven-year-old Tess Creamer said she "really liked a lot of the funny parts." She especially liked Colin "because he was bratty, super bratty in a funny way." She wished there were more funny parts and that the garden was "really like a garden with flowers and lots of stuff." She thought the maid (Charlotte Maltby) sang "beautiful songs" but she thought some of the pieces, like the love ballad between Mary's ghostly aunt (Brandi Burkhardt)—all pink ruffles and saccharine soprano (my description, not hers)—and Uncle Archibald, were "kind of boring."
Lily Heneghan, 15, had read the novel twice when she was younger—though she didn't actually remember that much of it, she said. She also liked the show and said her favorite parts were the Indian dancing that occurred during the dream sequences or magical moments in the garden and "when Mary was following the bird [puppet]." She admired the economic set because it was "simple," and "didn't take a lot of time to change things." For example, she said, "that was really cool how Colin and his bed would come up from the floor and they didn't have to interrupt things to change the scene." Her biggest beef, like Tess Creamer's, was the secret garden itself. "It would have been cooler if there were more flowers," she said. She is a sophisticated theatergoer—her mom is costume designer and she has clearly been around the block when it comes to shows—so she likely gets the notion of willing suspension of disbelief. But there is a limit. In show about a tangled, overgrown English garden a few papier mâché tropical blooms popping out of the stage did not cut it. "They kept singing about lilacs and these flowers weren't lilacs." Sigh. Indignation: "They were pink!"
"The Secret Garden" runs through Nov. 29 at Center Stage. For more information, visit centerstage.org.