Rather than starring a steely Ebenezer Scrooge, "The Secret Garden" takes as protagonist young Mary Lennox, a British orphan of the early-20th-century cholera epidemic in Colonial India. Spoiled by her pampered, servant-encrusted life as the daughter of a high-ranking British military father, Mary is, in popular parlance, a snotty brat.
After her parents' death, the child is sent back to England and into the unwelcoming arms of her only living relative, a widower named Archibald Craven. He's a cranky hunchback who lives in a creepy mansion called Misselthwaite and mourns the loss of his beautiful wife, Lily.
Mary is lonely, angry and sad. In other words, she's the perfect subject for a soulful makeover. But instead of meeting a turn-of-the-century Oprah to work her transformative magic, Mary falls under the spell of nature and ghosts — yes, ghosts, just like that Dickens tale. Only darker.
For a children's story, "The Secret Garden" is pretty grim stuff, but that's also what makes the story and the musical so appealing. From gloomy grief and emotional torment comes a happy ending that feels not only earned but also satisfyingly tear-jerking.
TheatreWorks has wisely filled its annual holiday slot with "The Secret Garden," a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit with a score by Lucy Simon (Carly's older sister) and book and lyrics by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman ("'night Mother"). This is the second time TheatreWorks has planted this particular garden into a season, with the first time in 1995.
Only one cast member returns from that production — Mrigendra Steiner as Mary's Indian governess — though the director, Robert Kelley, remains the same. Last time around, "Garden" was in the much larger Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and frankly, that's a better space for a show that makes the Lucie Stern Theatre seem cramped.
Still, Kelley's production hits all the right emotional notes, even if set designer Joe Ragey goes for an uncomfortable blending of realistic and impressionistic environments. When we finally see the secret garden in all its glory, Ragey gives us something that looks like an overgrown exhibit at an artificial flower show.
Much more convincing are the performances from Kelly's sturdy cast. Angelina Wahler, a Palo Alto sixth grader, completely owns the show as Mary. She effectively conveys Mary's turbulent inner life, all masked by a flinty demeanor, and makes her transition to a bold and brave heroine capable of compassion and growth completely believable.
Joe Cassidy as Mary's Uncle Archie is sufficiently tormented — even gloriously so when he unleashes his gorgeous voice on the bravura duets "A Girl in the Valley" with the ghost of his dead wife (Patricia Noonan) and "Lily's Eyes" with his brother (Noel Anthony), who was also apparently in love with Lily. He's also impressive in the moving solo "Race You to the Top of the Morning," a distant father's lament that he's unable to fully love his son.
Simon's score is full of sumptuous, deeply appealing melodies, not the least of which are "Winter's on the Wing" and "Wick," the two songs for Dickon, the stick-wielding pagan, played by the charming Alex Brightman.
Music director William Liberatore and his nine-piece orchestra create a wonderfully full sound, though the actors seem over-miked for the Lucie Stern, and all the amplification has the unfortunate effect of making the lyrics hard to discern (which is actually OK for a few of Norman's awkward lyrical patches).
But again, the power of the performances and the emotional thrust of Burnett's story is clear and potent. As Mary makes friends — the maid Martha (the energetic Courtney Stokes) for one and the sickly Colin Craven (Andrew Apy) for another — and enlists them all in her quest to unlock the secrets of the walled garden, she starts moving the emotional temperature of the story from winter to spring.
The last 10 minutes or so of "The Secret Garden" constitute some of the most moving in the modern musical-theater canon. Music, story and performance combine for the kind of authentically rewarding happy ending that you just don't find often enough in our wicked age.
And that's the thing: You cannot be cynical and enjoy "The Secret Garden." Not even a little bit. That's another reason it makes sense to program this musical during the holidays, when we're more inclined not to mind twittering bird puppets or precocious children who transform the hard hearts of mopey adults into — you guessed it — not-so-secret gardens of good will.
What: The musical "The Secret Garden," presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 31, with shows Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. (On Dec. 24, shows will be at 1 and 6 p.m.)
Cost: Tickets are $19-$72.
Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.