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Monday, December 6, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spirited `Garden' Is Just What Downtown Needs

Seattle Times Theater Critic

------------------------------- Theater review

"The Secret Garden." Music by Lucy Simon, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. Directed by David Armstrong. Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 19 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle. $19-$50. 206-292-ARTS. -------------------------------

Due to the World Trade Organization fracas, the opening of the 5th Avenue Theatre's run of "The Secret Garden" was delayed a few nights.

When the gates to the enchanted garden did finally fling open the past weekend, audiences could enter a beautifully designed and executed musical fable - one of the 5th Avenue's better efforts in a notably uneven year.

To be sure, the Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musical, a 1991 Broadway hit which has been seen here on national tour, gets plodding at times.

Also Simon's semi-operatic score and the death-and-grief theme of Norman's Tony Award-winning book, will sit better with some young viewers than others. (If you bring a child under the age of 9, expect restlessness and many questions.)

Given that, "Secret Garden" is a sensitive, often affecting treatment of Frances Hodgson Burnett's popular 1911 children's novel of the same name. And with exquisite sets and costumes (first created for the Paper Mill Playhouse) and a top-notch cast at his command, director-choreographer David Armstrong keeps the show waltzing and wafting like a limpid dream.

Though the adult characters have been beefed up too much in Norman's adaptation, this is still basically the quintessential Victorian tale of young Mary Lennox, an English girl bred in India who is orphaned when her colonialist parents die of cholera.

Brooding Mary (played with charm and authority by Federal Way resident Cara Rudd) is sent off to live on a secluded British estate with her Uncle Archibald (the excellent Broadway tenor Mark Jacoby) - a recluse still grieving hard for his wife, a decade after her death.

Like many a Burnett heroine, Mary defies a repressor (her Uncle Neville, played by Jonathan Hadley). And she uses luck and pluck to make life better for herself and others (including an invalid cousin, enacted with aplomb by Pierce Cravens).

The catalyst for her own positive transformation is Mary's discovery of a secret garden, a favorite haven of Archibald's late wife, Lily.

True to sentimental Victorian form, Mary's guides to the simple joys of gardening are rustic, kindly Yorkshire servants - gruff Ben (Dan Kremer), feisty Martha (Kendra Kassebaum) and rollicking Dicken (ample-voiced Shonn Wiley), a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the Moors.

Another Victorian trope: the retinue of benevolent ghosts led by Lily - an ethereal presence, sung and mimed to perfection by local resident and Broadway star Patti Cohenour.

Garbed in lovely white gowns and suits, lit by Peter Bracilano in hues ranging from icy blue to glowing gold, this chorus of elegant phantoms is well-integrated into the flow of Armstrong's supple staging.

In addition to singing and offering some beyond-the-grave coaching, the spirits also arrange the sets in a garden represented by a shifting maze of leafy bowers.

Some other memorable elements in Michael Anania's set design: an enigmatic wall of intricately gnarled vines. Suspended suits of armor and dangling antique chairs, suggesting the decor of Archie's manor. And a huge formal portrait of Lily, which comes magically to life.

Simon's pretty music (with echoes of Mozart, Herbert, Irish jigs, Sondheim) swirls and eddies throughout.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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