The Secret Garden
Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. Music by Lucy Simon. Dir. Walter Stearns. With Michael Aaron Lindner, Bethany Dawn Lindner, Mallory Baysek. Porchlight Music Theatre at the Theatre Building.
As if to coincide with the thaw of winter, Porchlight’s forthright The Secret Garden comes with a high melting factor. Under Eugene Dizon’s rigorous yet sensitive musical direction, this family show based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel is set on “defrost,” and manages to scrape away cynical layers of ice on even the most jaded of ironists. And like it or not, much of that warmth comes from Baysek and Drew Mikuska, two sprightly—even nonirritatingly plucky—child actors who take on the roles of sheltered cousins stashed away in a scary mansion.
In case you don’t remember, Burnett’s young heroine is recently orphaned Mary Lennox (Baysek). After losing both of her parents to cholera in colonial India, she’s whisked to the English estate of her embittered, recently widowed uncle (authoritative baritone Michael Aaron Lindner), where she spends her days searching for her late aunt’s titular veggie patch and helping her crippled, bedridden cousin to walk again. While only slightly less Pollyanna than it sounds, Norman’s economical book keeps things moving, and Simon’s chamber score is so rhapsodic you’ll want to wrap yourself up in it.
Like many a Porchlight production, the music is by far the strongest element. A handful of distractions (albeit footnotes) include some severe and inconsistent miking, bits of static staging, and the constant onstage presence of an Indian mystic whom Stearns depicts one-dimensionally as “exotic.” Yet with a deeply sympathetic Lindner leading a thoroughly commanding ensemble, it’s as lush as a greenhouse.—Christopher Piatt