Theater Review: THE SECRET GARDEN (Revival Production at the Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Marc Wheeler on February 27, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


It’s been almost a year since Ahmanson Theatre ushered in spring with the national tour of Hadestown. This season (thank ye, Fates!), spring has come again with a lush new production of the 1991 Broadway musical The Secret Garden. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 English children’s novel of the same name, the musical features a 10-year-old orphaned girl as its protagonist. The musical is certainly family-friendly, as evidenced by the well- dressed and behaved children in attendance on Opening Night. Yet this dark-and-moody, Warren Carlyle-directed and choreographed production is more in the vein of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (which premiered three years prior to Garden’s 1990 pre-Broadway run) than it is a “kids’ show” in the vein of, say, Frozen. Regardless, the result is a gorgeous, sophisticated work that—to hearts and steps—will surely bring spring.

Emily Jewel Hoder;
Julia Lester and Emily Jewel Hoder

With lyrics and a Tony Award-winning book by Marsha Norman, Garden tells the tale of a 20th century girl, Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder), who becomes an orphan when her family dies of cholera. In this production, cholera itself is curiously played by a single actress, Kelley Dorney, who—like a color guard twirler—whirls her red-death upon them. Mary is shipped away from British India to the moors of Yorkshire, England where she’s to live with her uncle Archibald (a powerhouse Derrick Davis) to whom she’s a perfect stranger. Upon arrival, she finds his manners as cold as his manor. His distance, we discover, is attributed to the loss of his beloved late wife, Lily (Sierra Boggess), whose ghostly presence is as haunting and beautiful as the actress’s ethereal vibrato. Mary soon befriends Martha, a motherly, thick-accented chambermaid (a lovely Julia Lester) as well as a white-bearded old crank named Ben (an endearing Mark Capri). She’s also taken under the wing of Dickon (a handsome, honey-voiced John-Michael Lyles), who helps her communicate with birds and cultivate, as the title suggests, a secret garden whose capacity for growth far transcends the literal.

The Cast

As pre-teen Mary, Hoder carries the show with gusto. Sure, Mary can be a privileged, petulant brat at times, but she’s more adult than she should have to be. In the face of adversity, she keeps a stiff upper lip. If there’s anything missing from Hoder’s performance, it’s a moment to crack. Let’s face it, the girl just lost her whole family to cholera and now she’s living with a bunch of strangers: how does she deal with the pain when no one’s looking? Perhaps the book, or director, doesn’t want to go there, but for my money, it’s a missed opportunity.

Emily Jewel Hoder and John-Michael Lyles

Lucy Simon’s score (orchestrated by Danny Troob, conducted by Dan Redfeld, and with additional arrangements by music supervisor Rob Berman) is plush and sumptuous, bordering on the operatic. Because of the spiritual, even multicultural, nature of the work, Simon lures us with rich, haunting melodies that are quenchingly reprised. Standout numbers include “Come to My Garden” and “How Could I Ever Know,” a powerful duet between Archibald and his late wife. In “A Bit of Earth,” wherein Mary asks her uncle for some earth to garden, I couldn’t help but notice how Norman’s lyrics stand in contrast to Simon’s near-sounding “bitter earth” upon which a grieving Archibald now stands.

Sierra Boggess and Derrick Davis;
Reese Levine (center) and the cast

As solid as the cast is (there’s not a weak link in the bunch), the book is unnecessarily complex. Complicating matters is the production’s colorblind casting. As appealing as it is to see diverse human hues populating a stage—like flowers in a garden—when casting choices are confusing, historically inaccurate, or work against the art or storyworld itself, one has to weigh their merits. For instance, when we discover that Archibald’s brother, Neville (Aaron Lazar), was secretly in love with and heartbroken by Lily; and we discover in Act One [small spoiler] a mysterious child named Colin (a feisty, scene-stealing Reese Levine) whose race matches Neville’s and Lily’s—not Archibald’s (uh-oh!)—well, you can see where my mind went. Does any of this potential drama pan out? Nope. But when audiences are unsure why something’s cast the way it is, we don’t know what to take seriously—or not. Consequently, we may invent fictions to make sense of the director’s (possibly non-art-related) choices, distracting us from the real story.

Sierra Boggess, Aaron Lazar and Derrick Davis

Visually, the work is poetry. Jason Sherwood’s set is minimalist and abstract, taking up just enough space to leave room for our imaginations. Set pieces and actors move in and out swiftly, elegantly, like ballet dancers, hitting their marks with precision. Meanwhile, a giant “swirl,” lit gorgeously by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan, ascends to the rafters as candles Phantom-ly fill a ghostly stage. The look is classy, if playful, and eventually, bright. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are well-suited, proper. Touching them up nicely are Victoria Tinsman’s wigs and makeup. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier fills the air with windy chills or the sweet bird sounds of a garden. Offering distinctions in class and region, Joel Goldes‘ dialect coaching is top notch, as evidenced by the cast’s vocal deliveries.

Emily Jewel Hoder, Sierra Boggess and Derrick Davis

At its heart, The Secret Garden is sweet, sentimental. Even if the book complicates it, the story’s simple—yet richly so. Who hasn’t been that child (or adult) yearning to cultivate, or be grown? And who hasn’t been, or won’t be, that adult (or child, like Mary) who learns all too well the role of death in this cycle? From winter comes spring; from spring, winter—and all that’s in-between. If you’re looking for something to lift you, this bit of earth may be the grounding you need.

 The Cast

photos by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

The Secret Garden
revival production presented by Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on March 26, 2023
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
tickets to this show and 75+ additional productions starting at $20 are available now during LA Theatre Week


Tony Frankel February 28, 2023 at 5:15 pm

I agree, Marc, it’s a lovely production with thrilling design and performances. Additionally, I completely agree that the (still) complicated book was made even more confusing by the colorblind casting. It was somewhat easier to see Martha (white) and Dickon (black) as siblings, but can’t the producers keep the same color in the same family for the audience’s sake (if not fer crissake)?

Oh, and another EGREGIOUS oddity: Mary’s guardian and uncle Archibald is a hunchback (it even says so in the script), but the hunch is mysteriously missing on actor Derrick Davis while his brother, Neville, walks with a cane!

Part of our sympathy for Archibald arises (or should arise) because a beautiful woman fell in love with him, and then died, leaving this poor deformed man to possibly never find love again. Post-show, one confused audience member (there were plenty) wondered if the producers thought that a hump would offend the hunchback or entire physically different community. Whatever the “woke” reasons, I feel this MUST be attended to before the show moves to Broadway (which it will).

In the words of Igor: “What hump?”

Jordon Julien March 7, 2023 at 2:26 pm

My two cents:

While I preferred the set design of the original to the revival’s, I was pleased to see a show with no projections.

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