42nd Street Moon’s “The Secret Garden” pays homage to children’s novel but lacks polish

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Many of us have grown up familiar with the storyline of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original children’s novel “The Secret Garden.” While 42nd Street Moon’s revival of Marsha Norman’s 1991 musical delivers the heartwarming story with a few standout performances, it often falls flat, lacking the polish needed to capture the full nuances in character and emotion present in both the original novel and score.

The musical begins by introducing Mary Lennox (Katie Maupin) as the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic in India that kills her parents and all her servants. She’s subsequently sent to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven (Brian Watson), and his brother Neville Craven (Edward Hightower). Though Mary initially despises her new living arrangements, she befriends her new maid Martha (Heather Orth) and Martha’s brother Dickon (Keith Pinto), as well as her “invalid” cousin Colin (Tyler Groshong), all of whom encourage her to revive the secret garden of Archibald’s late wife Lily (Sharon Rietkerk).

The musical explores themes of grief with generally complicated and well-rounded characters. We begin to see the parallels between Archibald Craven and Mary in the different ways they deal with the deaths in their shared family in the moving number “I Heard Someone Crying” early on, establishing a connection that is fleshed out through the rest of the story. Highlight performances of audience favorites “Lily’s Eyes” and “How Could I Ever Know” expand upon Archibald’s journey in learning to deal with Lily’s death through his relationship with Mary.

Of note is the performance of 12-year-old Maupin as Mary, showcasing her transformation from the indignant kid arguing with Martha and Colin, to a compassionate young woman cultivating the garden she loves, to the scared girl comforted by Martha’s powerful “Hold On.” She navigates the difficulties of the minor and often dissonant score extremely well, often carrying her various duets with a pure voice that embodies the youth and innocence of her character.

On the other hand, many of the other actors were rather unconvincing in their portrayals. While all possess generally strong voices that shine in their various, respective songs, an extra level of chemistry and charisma between the cast — necessary to draw the audience in — seemed absent. The conflict between Archibald and his brother Neville was out of place; the audience never truly feels the codependence Mary and Archibald develop. While the performances were far from weak, it’s hard not to wish for a little more attention to detail in the relationships the characters develop.

The missing emotional impact was partly due to the staging of the show. 42nd Street Moon made the bold choice to use minimal costumes, set design and backing music as a way to further emphasize the unamplified vocals and the story itself. Yet in the context of this particular musical, these artistic decisions seem to diminish rather than enhance the overall impact.

In a piece where the contrast of the vast and lonely manor to the lively wonders of the secret garden is so important, the smaller and minimal set, which never shows the actual garden itself, fails to create the emotional space needed to amplify the sentiments of the characters. Similarly, the operatic style of the music clashes with the small ensemble and mostly piano orchestra of 42nd Street Moon.

It’s also here where a bit more polish would have improved the production. At times, the music lagged slightly behind the voices, and the piano stumbled a few times — a possible result of the piano’s need to fill the role of an entire orchestra. Many songs feature overlapping melodies and harmonies, which, though beautiful, may have benefited from a bit more rehearsal.

As a whole, 42nd Street Moon’s “The Secret Garden” still successfully brings to life the original story, weaving together the themes of resilience and different forms of grief. Though this specific musical may have not been the best choice for the unique style of 42nd Street Moon, the company succeeds in conveying a touching adaptation of a beautiful classic.

42nd Street Moon’s “The Secret Garden” is running at the Gateway Theatre in San Francisco through Dec. 24.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].