Isee dead people. No, really. All over the stage of the Olney Theatre Center they roam, skulking in corners, lurking behind hedges, eavesdropping on the mournful conversations in the dreary household of Archibald Craven, a depressed Englishman obsessed with the loss of his wife, Lily.
"They're only a ghost if someone alive is still holding on to them," the unhappy lord of the manor explains to his niece, Mary, who, in the habit of many of the denizens of "The Secret Garden," is holding on to a couple of ghosts herself -- those of her mother and father, who died of cholera in India.
Do you feel a song coming on? Yes, indeed, "The Secret Garden" is a musical, and one with a fairly impressive pedigree: The story, first staged on Broadway a decade ago, is based on a 1911 novel worshiped by 12-year-olds; the book and lyrics are by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, and the music was composed by Lucy Simon, sister of Carly.
But even if the ghosts at the Olney are elaborately coiffed and dressed in ethereal white, the prevailing color of this grim and plodding production, directed by John Going, is gray. It seems clear that Norman and Simon were trying, in adapting a children's story about death, to find a musical language for grief, and to identify the enchantment that summons the grieving back to life.
And though "The Secret Garden" is blessed with several lush ballads, many suggesting traditional English folk songs, the musical never casts off its heavy emotional baggage; it never quite rises to the level of bewitching spectacle. "High on a hill sits a big old house with something wrong inside it," goes a line from a song repeated several times. That sense of something being off permeates the entire production. An audience spends a heck of a lot of time in that house without ever really feeling as if it has been invited into anyplace truly compelling.
The most satisfied visitors to this world are likely to be ardent fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, and her deeply affecting tale of a 10-year-old girl whose pampered world is shattered when her parents die. Mary, played by the vocally strong 11-year-old Rita Glynn, is dumped on her uncle Archie (John Scherer), who not only is in mourning over Lily (Peggy Yates) but also keeps his own ill son, Colin (Justin Spencer Pereira), stowed away in a sickroom. Mary befriends the workers on the estate, who include the maid (Sherri L. Edelen) and the gardeners (Harry A. Winter and Stephen Gregory Smith).
That secret garden, of course, is the private precinct, in both a real and a metaphorical sense, where Mary's zest for a new beginning is nourished. Try as they might, though, Going and his creative team do not conjure this essential domain with much imagination, though Norman and Simon have not given them much to work with. The gardeners' songs, and in particular, "Winter's on the Wing" and "Wick," are the sort of predictable fluff inserted into musicals to give the other cast members a breather.
The noisy, clunky set does not help. For the garden scenes, the actors actually have to lug around the shrubbery -- they roll the bushes on and off so often they should be getting landscaping stipends. Also, projections of trees and oak-paneled studies are used in place of backdrops. This may have been a cost-cutting measure. It looks like one.
It's difficult to single out any performance in a musical in which the characters are little more than mannequins with proper accents. The truth is, unfortunately, no one in "The Secret Garden" emerges smelling like a rose.
The Secret Garden. Music by Lucy Simon; book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. Directed by John Going. Musical director, Christopher Youstra; choreography, Sharon Halley; sets, Daniel Conway; costumes, Howard Tsvi Kaplan; lighting, Scott Pinkney. With Christopher Flint, Corrie James, Daniel Felton, Nehal Joshi, Mary Payne, Joe Peck, Stephen F. Schmidt, Steve Tipton, Eileen Ward. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 29 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org