Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel “The Secret Garden” has all the elements for a gothic tale. In a lonely house in the Yorkshire moors, a young orphan comes to live with her last remaining relative — a hunchbacked uncle haunted by memories of his late wife. The house is full of mysterious hallways, strange noises and a child crying in the night.
Yet Burnett’s book — and the musical theater version now playing at Artistry in Bloomington — isn’t about creating scares for the characters, or the audience. It offers a moving tale of redemption through listening to the spirits who have gone before and to the land itself.
Director Lisa Channer crafts a sumptuous production full of memorable visuals and heartfelt emotions that are completely realized by the hardworking cast. When the show stumbles, it is more about flaws in the script than the staging.
The musical, by writer Marsha Norman (“ ’Night, Mother” and the musicals “The Color Purple” and “The Master Butchers Singing Club”) and composer Lucy Simon, opens with a dance by colonials in India at the turn of the 20th century. By the end of the dance, all except young Mary are dead from cholera.
The youngster is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archie. She knows nothing of her parents’ native land and her uncle wants little to do with her, as Mary reminds him of his late wife, Lily.
In her isolation, Mary begins to explore, especially the vast gardens outside the manor home. She is befriended by the downhome Yorkshire servants and hears of a special garden that was Lily’s. She sets two goals for herself: to find and resurrect Lily’s garden, and to help her cousin, the invalid Colin, walk for the first time.
Whew. By the second act, the plot threatens to overwhelm the emotional connections we need to make with the characters, especially as it spins its wheels around Archie’s brother Neville, a doctor who has been “treating” Colin for years and who was in love with Lily.
He is not developed enough to be a fully fledged villain or a fully sympathetic character. Instead, he mainly gums up the works. That’s not the fault of Taras Wybaczynsky, who imbues Neville with as much humanity as he can and exquisitely sings the complex role. His moments with Ben Johnson’s Archie are the musical and emotional highlights of the show.
Caitlyn Carroll and Gavin Nienaber carry another heavy load as the two young leads. Carroll is engaging and very real as a young girl who has been torn away from her life and is desperate to create a new home in England, while Nienaber works hard to shift Colin from an angry brat into a scared but hopeful young man.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.