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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

The Secret Garden
Stages St. Louis

The second production of the Summer season at Stages St. Louis is a lavish reading of The Secret Garden, a grown-up musical version of the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett novel about a young girl's struggle to find herself in an alien society. Whatever heroine Mary Lennox is made of, it is clearly not merely sugar and spice. The characters in her disrupted life story are drawn with little ambiguity, but she is emotionally and morally complex to the point of being, at times, her own enemy.

Wrenched from a life of privilege in India, shipped halfway around the world to the gloomy Yorkshire estate of her uncle, she must come to terms with her grief over the gruesome deaths of her parents in the face of the uncle's pathological depression caused by the loss of his young and beautiful wife. The garden of the title was that wife's special place, and it is through discovering it, with the assistance of the uncle's genial servants, that young Mary finds her way back to life.

A particular feature of the stage adaptation is the presence of the ghosts—recognizable by their white clothes—of Mary's parents and nurse, of the dead wife, and of sundry others from India and Yorkshire. The nature of their interaction with the living characters is interesting: at first they move and dance, close to one another, but cannot touch. Later, in two key scenes, they do touch, embrace, as the ghosts comfort both the uncle and Mary. This inconsistency gives the story a curiously muddled feeling, as if the terms on which we are to take it are being changed even as we experience it.

But nothing about the story, or about the generally bland, Lloyd-Webber-ish music, can distract from the power of the cast Stages has assembled to perform it or the technical virtuosity with which it is staged. Secret Garden presents, for me, two high points in the 25-year history of this company. First, of all the powerful singers who have graced the company over the years, Peter Lockyer is the best I can remember. He brings to the role of the gloomy uncle an entirely credible physical performance, but it is his vast, easy, burnished tenor that makes the performance unforgettable.

Other standouts in the large and beautifully coordinated cast include Julie Cardia, who was such a memorable Adelaide in Guys and Dolls two years ago, as the brash and happy maid Martha; Anthony Holds as Dr. Craven; and Alexis Kinney, bratty and vivacious by turns as the enigmatic Mary.

The second respect in which this production sets a new high standard for Stages is in the sets, lights and costumes. James Wolk's intricately detailed set, with as many working parts as have ever been assembled in the restricted space of the Robert G. Reim theater, is not only visually stunning, but ingenious in operation. We expect excellence when the costume designer is Dorothy Marshall Englis, but here she has outdone herself in both the concepts and the execution of a dizzying variety of clothes. Finally, Matthew McCarthy's lighting, all-important in both the blocking of the show and the setting of moods, is hugely complex, rich to the point of being daring in its colors, and always perfectly attuned to the needs of the story.

I don't think Secret Garden will ever be my favorite musical, but if ever there was an example of the wonderful results brilliant production values and superb casting can achieve, even with somewhat less than brilliant material, the current Stages production is it. The show will run through August 21 at the Robert G. Reim Theater in the Kirkwood Community Center. For ticket information, call 314-821-2407, or visit www.stagesstlouis.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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