The Secret Garden, Pegasus Players. On Broadway and in the touring version seen earlier this year at the Shubert, this musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story was a moving work of dark enchantment, thanks to the individual quality and unified interaction of Marsha Norman’s libretto, Lucy Simon’s music, Heidi Landesman’s storybook set, and Susan H. Schulman’s sensitive direction. But this emotionally flat non-Equity production is utterly lacking in wonder, excitement, romance, and suspense as it recounts the tale of an orphan girl who overcomes her own isolation to bring joy to her morbid uncle’s spooky manor on the moors. Director Victoria Bussert, whose staging displays none of the warmth or insight of her earlier Pegasus triumphs (Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures), is hampered from the start by Micheal Smith’s cheesy set, which consists mainly of rolling walls tackily hung with fake-looking vines and flowers. The clunky decor is disastrous in a work that depends heavily on visual detail to convey psychological subtext and period atmosphere.
Equally ruinous is the weak casting, which emphasizes vocal talent over acting ability: Simon’s lyrical melodies survive mostly intact, but the singers fail to probe the nuances of Norman’s superbly suggestive libretto, while a fatal combination of overdone Yorkshire accents and shrill overmiking obscures far too many words. In the crucial lead roles, child actors Rebecca Stevens and Lars Kvalvaag are especially grating as they shout their lines over an already strident sound system. The only possible defense for this production is that its forthcoming tour might reach audiences who lack access to the Broadway original; but putting this wilted Garden on the road is like booking Bob Dole to represent President Clinton’s health plan.