The modest charms of The Secret Garden are enhanced by the appealing performance of Julia DeSantis as the young heroine Mary Lennox. Despite Spring Lake Theatre Company’s failure to cultivate the story-defining metaphorical garden, 10-year old Julia and her cast mates manage to jerk the tears out of the 20-year old musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 100-year old novel.
The show’s music (Lucy Simon) and lyrics (Marsha Norman) are minor-league pleasant. There’s very little humor in the book (Norman), and dancing is limited to a couple of stately waltzes.
Those shortcomings acknowledged, several Spring Lake performances are more than credible, and the show has built-in appeal to women and young girls familiar with the novel.
The musical is a straightforward re-telling of the sentimental story. Mary Lennox, orphaned when her parents succumb to a cholera epidemic in India, is sent back to Yorkshire, England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven and his doctor-brother Neville. Archie is still in mourning for his wife Lily, who died in childbirth ten years earlier, and he’s grief-stricken over his bedridden 10-year old son Colin.
Mary discovers a long-neglected, secluded garden, which had been Lily’s pride. In revitalizing the garden, Mary restores life to her sick cousin and her miserable uncle.
Julia DeSantis acts with a maturity that belies her youth and inexperience. Mary, at first petulant, faces down her uncle, conquers Colin’s self-pity, and bonds with Scottish chambermaid Martha (beautifully acted by Stephanie Barlow-Peduto). In Julia’s portrayal, all of Mary’s relationships register as genuine.
Jason Tamashausky and Kevin Polke are effective as the brothers Craven, and Matthew Giunco’s sickly Colin is appropriately nasty until he finally gains a friend.
The show employs a “Dreamer” chorus of Lily, Mary’s parents and a few others, who provide commentary-in-song from the Great Beyond. Vocal honors go to Natalie Shinn-Auch as dream Lily. Strikingly attractive in a shimmering white gown, Natalie sings like the angel Lily is. As Mary’s dream parents, Laurett Gannon and Karl Loveland also contribute nicely. (Taking the amplification down a notch would enhance all the singing, some of which is barely intelligible.)
Tim Walling’s direction staves off the monotony of a mostly bare stage and one-tone costumes (lovely, but white, white, white). Credit him, too, with fostering DeSantis’s good work. Musical director Mary Lough gets a workout at the piano; she and her five-piece ensemble are more than mere accompanists.
In 1991, Daisy Eagan became the youngest actress to win a Tony Award (for Mary). The show’s book was also honored, as was its scenic garden, which is among the missing in Spring Lake. Ms. DeSantis and others deserve floral bouquets; they’ll have to settle for praise in print.