For the last several years, the Astoria Performing Arts Center has given its audiences an annual spring treat: a surprisingly large production of a surprisingly large-scale musical, all done in the company's surprisingly small Off-Off-Broadway theater. APAC's last offerings (Ragtime in 2009, Children of Eden in 2010, and The Human Comedy last year) have been successful to various above-average degrees, featuring cast sizes and direction (by Tom Wojtunik) that belie their low-budget provenance. This year's production, of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's 1991 musical The Secret Garden, is, in those crucial ways, no different, and is something audiences can feel good about seeing. But it faces its own set of issues that Wojtunik's otherwise admirable production cannot fully overcome.
It's not difficult to understand what attracted the company to it. It's a relatively big show based on a well-known novel (by Frances Hodgson Burnett), and has the strong themes of family and community that have characterized APAC's other major-musical choices. To make matters better, it's loaded with plenty of good roles for men and woman of all ages, from barely-double-digit kids to middle-agers-and-upwards. For community or community-oriented theatre (and I would unquestionably put APAC in the latter camp), this is about as solid a recent choice as you can find.
Well... on paper. For its many virtues, The Secret Garden is not necessarily a great musical, and is certainly not always an easy show to like. In telling the story of the girl Mary Lennox, who is brought to live with her shut-in uncle, Archibald, in Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire after her parents die of a cholera outbreak in India, it's not afraid to pile on the darkness or the clichés.
Mary is doubly tormented, first by the ghosts of the people she knew overseas and second by Archibald's brother Neville, who sees her as either an obstacle to curing Archibald's perpetually bed-ridden son Colin (if you believe his version of the story) or taking over Misselthwaite (if you don't). She has a lot to overcome, both internally and externally, and only by discovering and resuscitating the cherished garden of Archibald's deceased wife, Lily, can she make that happen. And because of the rather prodding and cloying nature of the plot's presentation, even if you don't know the original book you're never in doubt about how it will end.
Norman's book (which won a Tony Award) and lyrics lean, often too heavily, on the mystery and the misery with which Mary must grapple, which gives much of the show an angry, angsty feel it can never entirely graduate from. Simon's music, too, is on the heavily haunting side, punctuated occasionally by dashes of country folk music, but always reminding you—even in its (relatively) happier sections—that bad things are afoot and happiness rarely lasts forever.
This is a family musical? Surprisingly, yes, it is intended as one, but most of the time it's frankly hard to tell. Tragedy and horror pierce the opening scene, which melts into a chorus about the shadowy manse into which Mary is moving ("The House Upon the Hill"), and various other numbers sing about the gloom of an impending storm, misplaced love, and the ache that tends to accompany those you long to be with but can't. There are instances of fun and comedy, to be sure, but they're always exceptions: Norman and Simon wanted to make it clear in the style of their work that the pre-adolescent Mary was not welcome in the grown-up world of Misselthwaite Manor, and did they ever succeed.
This is not, in and of itself, an unworkable choice, but it places an unusual strain on the directors, designers, and performers to compensate for the murk and morbidity. If they're not all up to the challenge, the audience isn't going to stick with it—and, worse, isn't going to want to stick with it—except for the only two genuine instances of hope that occur near the end of each of the two acts. It's here that Wojtunik, his creative team, and his company, despite their fervent efforts, only intermittently succeed.
Wojtunik and musical stager Christine O'Grady (there's no real choreography to speak of) keep the action fluid, swirling it effectively between rooms, between cities, and even between continents. But the show's sometimes-clunky structure tends to keep the seams in full view, especially with the limited stage space available here; during the "flashback" scenes in which you see Mary's family and elaborate Indian coterie perish of disease, for example, it looks like no concrete decision was made about the best way to unite the past and the present onstage. And although Wojtunik knows how to control your focus, he's slightly less adept at instantly establishing location, something that's crucial with a libretto as free-form as this.
Michael P. Kramer's portrait gallery unit set provides an attractive, filigreed backdrop, but doesn't assist as much as it should with this (lighting designer Dan Jobbins, however, is careful to always illuminate the proper paintings so you always know who any given scene is about). It also does not satisfactorily solve the show's most perplexing dilemma: how to actually show the garden once it can no longer be hidden from view. (Norman wisely relegates it to the characters' eyes until extremely late in the evening.) I hate to bring this up because the production's obviously restricted budget precludes the kind of transformative design Heidi Landesman so famously accomplished on Broadway. But this requires a real solution, and Wojtunik and Kramer haven't provided one: In fact, the method they employ may make it difficult, depending on where you're sitting, to tell you're even in the garden at all. Given its importance to the development of every single character in the show, this is a lamentable loss.
Overall, the cast members are more successful at keeping the narrative aloft. As Archibald, Patrick Porter is appropriately avuncular, with a firm grasp on the man's tortured personality (if not always his stated physical affliction or his evolving affection for Mary and Colin). The Neville of Benjamin J. McHugh is appropriately impassioned, but the actor does entirely avoid the trap of making him a villain in the deepest parts of the second act. But it must be mentioned that Porter and McHugh's first act duet, "Lily's Eyes," in which they both consider the loss of the woman who was so jointly important to them, is the production's musical highlight, superbly sung and awash in human feelings. You even understand the allure of the woman they're singing about, as Jennifer Evans brings her robustly engaging soprano to full bear on Lily, and imbues her portrayal with a palpable warmth the show so desperately needs; she reads as less corporeal than is perhaps ideal, but is a delightfully affecting presence.
Of the rest of the cast members, the only one quite in their league is Michael Jennings Mahoney. As Dickon, the young man who inspires Mary to not give up the seemingly hopeless cause of reinvigorating the garden and those who might benefit from it, he captures all the character's mischievous mirth and common-man common sense without commenting on the character—a tough feat. Jaimie Kelton is effective if low-key as Martha, Dickon's sister and the housekeeper who becomes Mary's confidante, and Richard Vernon finds genuine if weighty heart in the role of the manor's aging gardener. Sam Poon is a cute but overly excitable Colin.
As for Mary, Hannah Lewis is perfectly serviceable, correctly striking all the basic notes of her character and songs, if seldom with much originality or distinction. (In fairness, given the sourness of much of the character's writing, it's an uphill battle for any child actress.) You feel Lewis's natural precociousness emerge only twice: during the scene at the end of Act I, in which she discovers the garden, and in Act II when she conspires to drive away a deceptively nasty headmistress Neville has hired to get Mary out of the house. During these occasions, you feel as though you're seeing a real person engaging her real life in a recognizable way, and that's always a treat. Lewis is incredibly game and rigidly professional in her approach throughout, but she otherwise has trouble balancing spirit, joy, and the sobering seriousness Mary must consistently confront.
One can't entirely blame her. The show, as a whole, suffers from many of the same troubles: How bleak can a musical be while still positioning itself for the redemption its story demands? To me, that's asking the wrong question—finding the proper serious notes to balance an otherwise entertaining musical would seem the better way to go for a show that wants to appeal equally to all members of the family. As a result, The Secret Garden is hard to love and even harder to stage; Wojtunik and his company have achieved a lot, but fallen short of the precise alchemy needed to make Norman and Simon's tenuous creation fully bloom.
Photos by Michael Dekker. Top to bottom: Hannah Lewis and Michael Jennings Mahoney; Lewis and Jaimie Kelton; Jennifer Evans and Patrick Porter.