Great Lakes Theatre's 'The Secret Garden' blossoms

CLEVELAND - Methods of natural healing have interested people since the beginning of mankind.

And knowledge about the power of the human mind is older than Freud (May 6, 1856- September 23, 1939).

Both topics are as alive and well in 2015 as the English lad Colin Craven turns out to be in the children's tale "The Secret Garden," the award-winning musical version of which is receiving a mostly commendable production by Great Lakes Theatre to open its fall repertory season, along with Shakespeare's tragedy "King Lear."

Great Lakes' mission, in part, is to share the power of classics with theater patrons. "The Secret Garden" qualifies as a classic due to its timelessness.

The musical is faithful to the book without being a replica. Too much narration can make an adaption seem like the material hasn't been lifted from page to stage. Still, this musical adaptation could use some to provide background for those unfamiliar with the story.

"The Secret Garden," directed with sensitivity and attention to detail by Victoria Bussert, offers something for all ages. Children will be entranced by the idea of a magical garden coming to life, with the help of people their age, and the youngsters finding they have something in common with each other. There's also a comic villain in the nervous and self-centered Dr. Neville Craven.

Adults will find timeless issues such as the grieving process and how to deal with it, especially if you're a surviving parent, medical ethics (Dr. Craven isn't exactly doing his job by feeding Colin's hypochondriac thoughts and keeping him bedridden) the importance of getting children active and outdoors and the responsibilities that come with being a parent.

No doubt, the garden at the center of the story plays a major role in the transformation not just of Colin, but his cousin, India native Mary Lennox, who comes to live with him after her parents' death in a huge, dark mansion just after the turn of the 20th century in England.

In this Dickensian tale, it's not just a mysterious, magical garden that has remedial powers. The power of one's thinking does as much to heal - and harm - as nature.

Sure, Lennox is orphaned as a child, and that has no doubt negatively affected her. But it's her sense of entitlement that has alienated her from others. She is, in short, a disagreeable, cranky girl in looks and attitude. She's also had some unclear health issues.

Like a flower or leaf that hasn't received nourishment for who knows how long, Lennox is wilting under the weight of her ill-mannered personality and bleak existence. That is, until she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, the home of her uncle, Archibald and cousin Colin. He has his own reasons to constantly think he's on the brink of death, refuse to speak to anyone or even get out of bed, rendering him pale, supposedly unable to walk and hunchbacked.

Set designer Jeff Herrmann has created an at times dark, gothic-like backdrop, steel-like structures in front of the mansion, which reinforces the cold, stifling atmosphere at Misselthwaite.

This atmosphere is as dark and dreary as the garden scenes are bright and cherry, with a sky-blue backdrop and flowers made from paper.

Lighting designer Paul Miller's otherworldly effects are appropriate for the garden scenes. Miller also lightens or darkens the stage appropriately, according to the mood.

One might wish Herrmann had created a dazzling, enchanting display with real flowers, but that's one of the few areas at which to nitpick.

Sound designer David Gotwald's realistic, scary thunder claps help accentuate Lennox's discomfort as she enters a strange, new place and costume designer Charlotte M. Yetman outfits defines character.

Stephen Mitchell Brown plays Archibald Craven, who's locked up the garden 10 years before the play; it's a painful reminder of his late wife, who adored the garden. The actor's a little too upbeat and mild mannered for a still freshly grieving man who dislikes his son and wants nothing to do with his niece.

But when Brown sings, and Brown has a strong, clear, expressive voice (the entire cast sings effectively, accompanied by a lush orchestra), frustration and anguish come pouring out with an intensity that suggests he's bottled up ill feelings for years. By contrast, this Archibald's soft, loving voice and humility by the show's end will melt your heart.

So will touching stage pictures created by Bussert between Colin and his mother's spirit (a heartfelt Jillian Kates, whose ethereal appearance is enhanced by Miller's lighting).

Bussert has appropriately emphasized dream-like states for this non-realistic show. She's also found the right balance between bleakness and brightness.

Warren Bodily imbues Colin with infectious joy and optimism with no hint of an ailment following his transformation; it's as though one moment he's a cripple and the next he's walking like a normal child. There's nothing cute about Bodily's Colin, whose facial expressions and voice drip with hostility during the boy's bad states. This child actor, who could act more fearful and less angry when Lennox first enters his room, makes it obvious Colin has buried feelings of anger and frustration at his father and Dr. Craven.

The physician's played naturally by Tom Ford as a man oozing nervous energy, desperation and slime. Think actor Paul Giamatti-like intensity with a dash of sleaze.

The doctor with something to gain by Colin's death is quite the opposite of Dickon (a spirited, encouraging, care-free Colton Ryan), a young lad who can talk to animals and helps heal Colin by wheeling him into the secret garden.

This magical outdoor part of nature seemingly magically transforms from dead to vibrant life, mirroring the children's transformation to energetic, happy young beings.

As Lennox, Giovanna A. Layne's transformation from sour, contrary girl to skipping, happy and curious lass is impressive. As with Bodily, there's no cuteness in her performance, as there sometimes can be with child actors.

Supporting characters are played with skill by equally talented performers. There's head mansion servant Mrs. Medlock, (an appropriately black-clad, commanding Laura Perotta), garden maintenance worker Ben Weatherstaff (a somewhat cranky but affable Dougfred Miller), Mrs. Winthrop (a mean-looking, stone-faced Cassandra Bissell), a school representative who tries to educate Lennox and Martha (an energetic, free spirited Sara Masterson), Dickon's sister who puts Lennox in touch with Colin.

The musical is faithful to the source material, Frances Hodgson Burnett's early 1900s novel. At the same time, the musical's book writer and lyricist, Marsha Norman, has created an adaptation with its own identity.

For example, the presence of Mrs. Winthrop, who isn't in the novel, creates a conflict within Lennox; will she leave the mansion's grounds, abandoning Colin when he needs her most, or go to school?

Lucy Simon's songs are mostly effective at establishing mood and allowing the characters to give voice to what's in their souls in a way spoken words can't. Especially effective are "Come to My Garden," which carries an inviting, enchanting tune.
The haunting "The House Upon the Hill," suggests the darkness and mysterious of Misselthwaite Manor. Other songs suggest a dream state, while upbeat numbers reinforce the positive transformation Colin and Lennox have undergone.

We've heard the expressions: "It's all in your mind" and "Mind over matter" to name a couple. "The Secret Garden" has the potential to make us watch out for our own manner of thinking and to change it if it's ruining our lives.

Of course, it always helps to have people as upbeat and encouraging as Dickon and his sister to help you along.

WHAT: "The Secret Garden"
WHEN: Various times and dates through Oct. 31
WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland.
For tickets, call 216-241-6000.