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This 'Secret Garden' Is Beautiful but Slow to Bloom

Theater Review

December 06, 2001|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wind wails mournfully and ghosts waft plentifully in "The Secret Garden," now at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Based on the children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, this lovely yet slow-moving musical that premiered on Broadway in 1991 features music by Lucy Simon and a Tony-winning book by Marsha Norman, who also wrote the lyrics.

A top-notch producing organization, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities again sets a high standard of professionalism in this production.

Director Greg Zerkle and his team, including choreographer Kay Cole and musical director Jeff Rizzo, hew out a production that is impressive on almost every level, with a finely honed sound, cameo-perfect staging and solid acting.

However, all the fine-tuning by many capable hands cannot expedite the long, dull, magic-blunting interludes inherent in this adaptation. Norman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("'Night, Mother"), tackles Burnett's original ably enough, while adding effective flourishes of her own. And, undoubtedly, Simon's music includes some charming numbers, such as "A Bit of Earth" and "Race You to the Top of the Morning."

The problem is that the story is almost wholly capitulated in unvarying, funereal music, with few stretches of lively song or actual dialogue.

Despite moments of galvanic theatricality, as when Mary opens the enchanted garden door at the end of Act 1 (a moment beautifully rendered by lighting designer Raun Yankovich), "Garden" has the ambience of a dramatized elegy, dirge-like and repetitive.

That's ironic, given the prevalent theme of reawakening. In the story, set in the 1870s, Mary Lennox (gifted Beth Alison), orphaned in India, is shipped to Yorkshire to be raised by her uncle, Archibald Craven (Danny Michaels), a misanthrope still pining for his dead wife, Lily (Teri Bibb).

Mary soon finds that there are secrets in the eerie Craven mansion--including Archibald's invalid son, Colin (Emily Verla), a cosseted victim of his unconsciously venal uncle, Dr. Neville Craven (Brendan Ford). Also hidden away is Lily's neglected garden, which Mary discovers and nurtures, with the help of her new servant friends Martha (Bets Malone), Dickon (Kevin Noonchester) and surly Ben Weatherstaff (Robert Pike Daniel).

Of course, the mystical forces of nature and the verdancy of a Yorkshire spring eventually restore all to full heath, hope and vigor. The reunion of Colin and his tormented father in the secret garden, at play's end, is genuinely moving, an emotional peak in this exquisite but strangely flat dreamscape.

*

"The Secret Garden," Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Also Saturday and Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 16. $35-$50. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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