STONEHAM — Although mankind’s first sojourn in a garden ended badly, we’ve never really let go of the notion that refuge, renewal, and rebirth can all be found in a natural setting.
That eventually proves true for the emotionally muddled members of an Edwardian-era British family in the musical adaptation of “The Secret Garden’’ now at Stoneham Theatre, codirected by Caitlin Lowans and Weylin Symes.
Stylish, well-sung, and generally well-acted though this production is, Lowans and Symes haven’t solved the inherent problems of stodginess and sluggishness that bedevil the 1991 adaptation by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel.
Anyone coming cold to this slow-moving musical might have a hard time understanding why Burnett’s story has mattered so much to generations of young readers. Stoneham’s “Secret Garden’’ is handsome to behold and sometimes lovely to listen to, but only when Jennifer Ellis is commanding the stage does the production really hold you under its spell.
At the center of this story is a young orphan named Mary Lennox, played by 11-year-old Brigit Smith of Wakefield. She’s an appealing singer, and she sulks convincingly through the early scenes, when Mary is supposed to be stubborn and churlish, though Lowans and Symes need to ensure that their young star projects more volume in the non-singing scenes.
After her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India, Mary is transplanted to Misselthwaite Manor in North Yorkshire, England, to live with a relative she does not know: her widowed, hunchbacked uncle Archibald Craven, played by Kevin Cirone. Archibald is still mired in mourning for his late wife, Lily, who is portrayed by Ellis. Cirone effectively conveys Archibald’s brooding remoteness and the sense that this grief-ravaged man is sleepwalking through his days. John Eckert’s sepulchral lighting design adds to the general aura of a household entombed.
Within that gloom Ellis’s Lily is a radiant figure, whether seen in flashbacks or in ghostly form, gently haunting her old home. Ellis has a crystalline, thrillingly expressive soprano, and she mobilizes it to moving effect from start (“Opening Dream’’) to near-finish (“How Could I Ever Know,’’ a duet with Cirone). When she was alive, Lily loved to spend time tending the roses in the family’s garden; after she died, Archibald, in a life-denying gesture, locked the garden. (Symbolism doesn’t come much more direct than that.)
The household that Mary has entered includes Archibald’s bedridden son Colin (Dashiell Evett), languishing in a hidden bedroom, a virtual prisoner of his father’s fears that he, too, will become a hunchback, and Archibald’s bombastic brother, Neville (Rishi Basu), who manages the house and harbors larger ambitions. Also on hand, primarily to deliver some welcome comic relief, are a maidservant, Martha, played by Tess Primack, and her quirky brother, Dickon, portrayed by Andrew Barbato. The estimable Nancy E. Carroll plays a stony-faced housekeeper, though her talents are largely wasted. In addition, the production features a ghost chorus whose members include Mary’s parents, portrayed by Matthew Eamon Ryan and Alex Johnson.
In other words, the stage is pretty crowded. That lends “The Secret Garden’’ a busy, cluttered feeling that can make it hard to focus on the story line or any individual character. Clarity begins to assert itself in Act 2 — and the musical numbers grow stronger — as Mary makes her way into the garden, and resolves to, in effect, bring her cousin and uncle back to life. Herself, too, in the process.
I should note that the many children, mostly girls, in the audience at the performance I attended did not appear to share my misgivings about “The Secret Garden,’’ to judge by the rousing ovation at the end.
Also, as one who has experienced many distractions at the hands of knuckleheaded adults — crinkling wrappers, looking at cellphones, mindlessly yakking away as though they were home watching TV — it was a pleasure to see how attentive Stoneham’s young audience was. A generation that knows how to behave in a theater? Here’s hoping that particular garden grows and grows.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.