“The Secret Garden” occupies a special place in the minds of musical theater buffs: It’s smart and sensitive, a fable with a cranky hunchback uncle and a misfit little girl that steadfastly avoids cartoonishness and the bludgeoning approach of so many antsy, eager-to-please Broadway shows. Lucy Simon’s score has a yearning, magical pulse, and book writer-lyricist Marsha Norman’s adaptation of the beloved 1911 children’s novel has always been blessedly grown up, even as it welcomes audiences of nearly all ages.
The 1991 production was alluring but imperfect enough that the material has been rearranged now and then. The new staging at the Shakespeare Theatre Company features songs in a different order from when the musical debuted on Broadway, but the overhaul isn’t radical. What David Armstrong’s handsome, confident production offers is sturdiness: The performers are first-rate, and the gothic-pastoral design elegantly brings the mysterious Edwardian world to life.
Armstrong runs Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, the STC’s partner in this production (which runs in Seattle next spring), and the aces up his sleeve start with the cast. A particular coup is bringing Daisy Eagan back to the show that earned her a Tony Award as an 11-year-old in 1991, the youngest winner ever. Back then she played prickly young orphan Mary, and now Eagan is the benevolent chambermaid Martha. It’s a supporting role, but Eagan gets entrance applause from the crowd at Sidney Harman Hall. And in a show that’s all about rebirth and renewal, it’s appropriate that Eagan’s light maternal touch as Martha feels like the most natural performance of the night.
Young Anya Rothman is a charming sparkplug as Mary, whose parents died of cholera in British-controlled India. The performance is driven by sheer indomitable spunk; she’s irresistible when she finally tracks down the source of the crying in the gloomy mansion she comes to inhabit with her distressed hunchback uncle, Archibald. The tears come from Archibald’s quarantined son, Colin (Henry Baratz), who has been told he’s doomed to die soon. Snapping him to life becomes part of Mary’s mission, along with finding a key to a garden that’s also been left to die. As this fable unfolds, the tiny Rothman’s bright spirit becomes the evening’s indispensable engine.
Michael Xavier is ideal as Archibald Craven, the tormented uncle originally played by Mandy Patinkin. Xavier’s singing is rich and deluxe, rising to meet the demands of Simon’s power ballads (not the most persuasive moments in Simon’s score) and beautifully navigating the high tender passages as Archibald sings a duet with his dead wife, Lily. As Lily, Lizzie Klemperer gorgeously sings the show’s long, haunting invitation — “Come to my garden” — with each syllable angelically sent heavenward.
Josh Young is vocally robust, too, as Archibald’s frustrated brother, Neville, who likewise yearned for Lily and schemes to keep Colin locked up so he can inherit the mansion himself. The Archibald-Neville power ballad “In Lily’s Eyes” has always been pushed a little past the boiling point, yet Xavier and Young winningly sing it to the skies.
The pleasure of “The Secret Garden” is that it can feature an anguished hunchback like Archibald hobbling through his own haunted mansion with a cane and a candle yet not seem anywhere near gothic camp. Armstrong pierces this gloomy world’s darkness with shafts of light in the mysterious early going as Mary arrives in Archibald’s creepy home, and the slender railings and stairways of Anna Louizos’s set practically waltz into a variety of patterns to suggest the vastness of the house. Mike Baldassari’s lights make it abundantly clear when we’re looking at ghosts: They’re typically bathed in pure white, even when they hide in vine-covered trellises on wheels that actors maneuver from place to place as curious Mary explores the outdoors.
The understated colors and exacting lines of Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are a special delight, from the gardeners’ costumes of the outdoorsy figures to the sumptuous cuts of the ruling-class Brits felled by cholera in India. It’s all crisply snapped together, and it’s not unlike the “Carousel” across town at Arena Stage in its application of a warm score (played here by music director Rick Fox’s orchestra of 13 nestled under the stage) to soothe grieving hearts.
There’s a camp that says the musical never fully unleashes the well of feeling embedded in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, and they’re not entirely wrong. A kind of distance still seems wired into the swift-moving early passages, and into the songs that reach most earnestly at big effects. But the folksy interludes like “Wick,” sung by the rustic lad Dickon (Charlie Franklin); the thoughtful, silvery moments with ghosts; and an Indian incantation led by Mary all land rewardingly enough that the show’s grand final bloom feels earned.
The Secret Garden, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon. Directed and choreographed by David Armstrong. Sound design, Justin Stasiw. With Catherine Flye, Brittany Baratz, Mary Jo DuGaw, Vishal Vaidya, Maya Maniar, Jason Forbach, Jared Michael Brown, Greg Stone, Billie Wildrick, Ethan Watermeier, Alex Alferov, Happy McPartlin and Hayley Travers. Through Dec. 31 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets: $44-$123. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.