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`The Secret Garden' Grows Into a Musical

A vivid child's story has been transformed into a lush, rose-filled fantasy on the New York stage

THE SECRET GARDEN Musical with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon. Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. At the St. James Theatre.

`THE SECRET GARDEN'' revels in theatrical imagination and stylishly traditional showmanship. Marsha Norman and her collaborators have transformed a childhood classic into a lush Broadway fantasy. Could novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett have dreamed what might befall Mary Lennox at the St. James Theatre 80 years after the young heroine made her debut on the fictional scene? Probably not. But latter-day audiences of all ages can find much to applaud in the new stage version.

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Those who (like this reviewer) have not read ``The Secret Garden,'' will find that it concerns the plight of young Mary Lennox (Daisy Eagan), left orphaned in India, where her father has been serving with the British Army. In accordance with his will, Mary is placed under the guardianship of her Uncle Archibald Craven (Mandy Patinkin). The reclusive widower and his invalid son Colin (John Babcock) live in a bleak manor house amid the Yorkshire moors. In their version, Miss Norman, composer Lucy Simon, a nd director Susan H. Schulman counterpoint the ghostly memories of Mary's brief Indian childhood against the challenges facing the self-determined heroine at Misselthwaite Manor.

The stubborn newcomer resists the efforts of her elders in matters of deportment and education. She does, however, make friends with Martha (Alison Fraser), the good-natured chambermaid; Dickon (John Cameron Mitchell), Martha's equally cheerful brother; and Ben (Tom Toner), the gardener who covertly tends the secret garden. She gets to know Colin, the bedridden cousin who cannot hold out against Mary's boisterousness, and with whom she shares the secret of the garden.

Miss Simon has composed the kind of score that suits the unabashedly romantic nature of a tale that can be spontaneously funny along with its poignancy. William D. Brohn's lush orchestrations are given their full due in the performance conducted by Michael Kosarin. ``The Secret Garden'' achieves the irresistible appeal that moves audiences to the kind of standing ovation ``The Secret Garden'' received at a recent preview.

Under Miss Schulman's guidance, the singing actors prove themselves dedicated storytellers. The appealing Miss Eagan is a thoroughly forthright Mary, whether in her early brattish phase or when what is now called ``the learning process'' begins to take place. Young John Babcock's initially self-pitying Colin matches her staunchly in verbal bouts as well as pillow fights. Mr. Patinkin's Uncle Archibald is the figure of aloofness borne of private sorrows, but there is nothing aloof about the Patinkin voca lism. Rebecca Luker is a lovely, spectral Lilly and Robert Westenberg makes a sternly authoritarian martinet as Archibald's brother Dr. Neville Craven.

Miss Landesman's scenic scheme is a mingling of perspectives, of frames within frames, of British and Indian motifs, of the spectral and tangible. The secret garden is revealed as an old-fashioned riot of uninhibited rosiness. The Theoni V. Aldredge costumes achieve their full splendor in the gowns and uniforms for the ballroom scenes, for which Michael Lichtefeld staged the elegant waltzes.

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