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THEATER REVIEW : A 'Secret' for Grown-Ups : The musical is a sophisticated take on the classic, adding a rich subtext to the obvious contours.

August 13, 1993|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kids don't deserve all the fantasies. A grown-up sometimes needs a "Secret Garden" too.

The 1991 stage musical, returning to the area through this weekend only at Pasadena Civic Auditorium, might be called the PG version.

It's a far more sophisticated take on the Frances Hodgson Burnett tale than is the (G-rated) movie that's being released today. It's so sophisticated, in fact, that its target audience should be those adults or teen-agers who already know and cherish the story.

Anyone who's younger than the story's 10-year-old heroine, and a great many people who are a lot older, may find this version too refined, or else downright baffling. The first act, in particular, seemed too remote last summer at the Shubert Theatre.

But for "Secret Garden" devotees, the show adds a rich subtext to the more obvious contours of the story. And it's very much in bloom at Pasadena Civic, a hall that sometimes defeats this kind of relatively intimate spectacle. The auditorium's interior design is an elegant match for the onstage visual imagery, and the sound is reasonably clear.

Marsha Norman's script makes the story's adults as prominent as its children. When little Mary (Lydia Ooghe, who alternates with Demaree Alexander) is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald (Kevin McGuire), she finds that she's also living with the quite corporeal ghosts of her parents and their servants and friends from India. As in the book, they were all killed by cholera (the movie changed it to an earthquake), symbolized here by red handkerchiefs.

These apparitions are joined in England by the luminous specter of Archibald's dead wife, Lily (Jacquelyn Piro). They don't engage the living characters in idle chitchat, but they do come and go as they please, singing and dancing with graceful aplomb, not with any suggestion of spookiness. Their presence may be confusing in the initial hour or so.

Uncle Archibald isn't nearly as distant as the man in the movie; indeed, he tells us--if not Mary--just about everything that's on his mind. Furthermore, his brother Neville (Peter Samuel), who is completely missing from the movie, is a major presence here.

Neville is the doctor who is responsible for keeping Mary's cousin Colin indoors and crippled. It also turns out that he, too, had an unrequited yen for Lily. Mary suggests that Neville's ultimate ambition is to take over all of Misselthwaite Manor. Even more than the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, Neville is the villain.

The dreamy quality of the first act dissipates somewhat after intermission. In fact, an amusing scene in which Mary frightens off a stuffy schoolmarm is like something out of "Annie."

But despite all this, the essence of "The Secret Garden" isn't lost; it's simply amplified to reflect on the meaning of the story for adults as much as for kids. Lucy Simon's music is as lush and gorgeous as Heidi Landesman's unfolding set, and--as is often the case with the more delicate musicals--the folk-influenced tunes are much more memorable the second time around.

Anyone who's in the mood for a class in Advanced "Secret Garden" should brush up your Burnett and go dreaming in Pasadena.

* "The Secret Garden," Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tonight, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $35-$45. (818) 449-7360. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Lydia Ooghe, Demaree Alexander: Mary Lennox

Chad Hutchison, Yaniv Segal: Colin

Kevin McGuire: Archibald Craven

Peter Samuel: Neville Craven

Jacquelyn Piro: Lily

Jill Patton: Rose

Kevin Dearinger: Captain Albert Lennox

Mary Fogarty: Mrs. Medlock

Amanda Naughton: Martha

Roger Bart: Dickon

John Carpenter: Ben

Roxann Parker: Mrs. Winthrop

Music by Lucy Simon. Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Sets by Heidi Landesman. Costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge. Lighting by Tharon Musser. Sound Otts Munderloh. Orchestrations by William D. Brohn. Musical supervisor and vocal arrangements Michael Kosarin. Dance arrangements Jeanine Levinson. Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld. Musical direction Jeff Halpern.

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