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Theater Reviews: “The Secret Garden” Features Overly Sweet Story, Fine Cast:

When a cholera outbreak in an Indian village orphans little Mary Lennox (Quinn D’Andrea, a student at Lincoln Middle School) she is soon shipped off to her shut-in uncle’s cavernous mansion on the English moors, where she wanders the creaky halls and sprawling grounds, a lonely, lost waif in need of love. So begins playwright Marsha Norman’s Tony-award winning musical, The Secret Garden, based on the children’s story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A production is currently blooming at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, featuring singers who are in fine form, even though the story veers over and over again into cornball territory. Directed by Anne Gesling, this production does the best it can to keep audiences fully invested in the fate of our young heroine, but it’s hard to know who exactly that audience is supposed to be. Like the original book, this story is essentially custom-made for children, though Norman’s version is often touted as a darker, more adult-oriented rendering of the book. This production, though full of Grade A singers, lovely costumes, and solid sets, feels fully aimed at the younger set, though it’s not being billed that way. Nonetheless, the magical, titular garden stands as a gorgeous symbol of budding life struggling to survive in the face of painful death, and the actors commit to creating an air of haunting whimsy on stage. Misselthwaite Manor, the mansion where Mary must forge her own path after her parents’ death, is occupied by Archibald Craven (Jason Coosner), the aforementioned uncle who can’t get over the loss of his wife Lily (Tara McGrath), a woman who accepted him just the way he was, hunchback and all. When Mary enters the picture, Archibald can barely look at her, because she resembles her aunt Lily. As Mary mourns the loss of her parents, so Archibald mourns the loss of his wife in another room in the castle. Isolated, Mary gets spooked at night, when she hears moaning and crying sounds echoing through the manor. Though ghosts, including that of Lily, seem to roam the halls, Mary soon discovers that she has a cousin, Colin (Dylan La Rocque), who Archibald has shut away in fear that the child will develop his father’s disfigurement if exposed to the elements. There’s more to the story, but the crux is that the garden, once carefully pruned by Lily, has become a withered symbol of lifelessness since her death. In tending to it, Mary begins to heal, as do her various new housemates. It’s a quaint story, with otherworldly aspects and voices from beyond the grave gracing many of the scenes. Children act alongside adults, but there’s no mistaking the fact that it’s a child’s tale. That fact makes it hard to locate the play in the world of adult theatre. Both McGrath and Coosner show up with stunning voices and their songs are the most fun to hear. There are also some undeniably moving songs in the show, including the eerie “I Heard Someone Crying” and the mournful “Her Eyes. “It’s not that the The Secret Garden isn’t worth seeing,. You just have to be aware that this garden is, at heart, a child’s playground masquerading as an adult landscape. The Morgan-Wixson Theatre is located at 2627 Pico Blvd. Tickets to The Secret Garden are $23. Call 310.828.7519.

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