Musical The Secret Garden Delves Into the Human Psyche at Peoria's Arizona Broadway Theatre
The setup: Late Victorian children's novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is the typical story of a couple of more or less orphaned kids pluckily figuring out how to thrive and then transform the useless adults who were supposed to be responsible for them. One of Burnett's later works, the book's informed by her own experiences and passions and eventually outstripped even Little Lord Fauntleroy in popularity.
courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre Jordan Wolfe (Dickon) and Madeline Alfano, one of the three actresses who take turns playing Mary, in The Secret Garden.
1991 found an oddly popular musical version of The Secret Garden enduring on Broadway for 709 performances. I say "oddly" for several reasons that will come up later, but playwright Marsha Norman did skillfully manipulate audience emotions with her libretto, which nabbed a Tony over that for Miss Saigon, as did the problem-solving set by Heidi Landesman (also trouncing Miss Saigon -- something I like to note because musical Tony winners don't always face much competition, either critically or commercially). The show's now at Arizona Broadway Theatre, enjoyable and nicely performed, if somewhat uncanny by nature.
See also: Little Women: The Broadway Musical at Gilbert's Hale Centre Theatre Is Sweet, Nostalgic, and Deeply Weird
The execution: I recommend reading the book, because it's really magical. Should you read it first? Well, although the stage script departs from it in ways that are well-executed and actually make a lot of sense, the book might help you follow the somewhat incoherent details of the play's plot. (I don't find those details critical -- the show communicates, in my opinion, what it's supposed to -- but you know whether or not you or your companions are the kind of people who will fixate on some confusing point like "Where's her mother?" to the extent that I will hear you wondering it across the dining room and have to repress the urge to yell back, "Dead of cholera!")
On the other hand, Mr. Curtains never did read much children's lit (although now that he's bilingual, he reads it in two languages, as a study technique), and he found the play easy to follow and, to my surprise, actually enjoyable. If you already have enjoyed the novel, will the play suffer? Maybe, but not necessarily. My own quibbles were not on the topic of literary faithfulness.
A server chatting with a table near us asked whether the parties had read the book. "You should probably know," she told them, "that the people dressed in white are spirits." Oh, God. If you ever write a play, don't count on a waitress (or anyone else not onstage) to ensure that people understand it. She was right, as a matter of fact, but a) that's not in the book (not that she said it was) and b) it winds up being rather useless information. They sort of die off in the first couple of scenes. You can tell (I'm not making this up) because they start waving red handkerchiefs around. (P.S. One of them is the mysteriously absent mother. Duh.)
A British remount turned much of the chorus back into human beings, keeping only the dead parents as spirits. Variety still didn't like it all that much, but I would be interested in seeing how it's different.