Review: The Secret Garden Almost Blooms in a New Revival

The beloved musical stars Sierra Boggess and more in Center Theatre Group’s updated production.

Derrick Davis,. Sierra Boggess, and Aaron Lazar in The Secret Garden
Derrick Davis,. Sierra Boggess, and Aaron Lazar in The Secret Garden
(© Matthew Murphy)

The 1991 musical The Secret Garden, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's novel, has a devoted fan following. Despite being notoriously difficult to stage, the production that opened Sunday night at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles overcomes many of the obstacles — but not all of them. This flawed musical, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, may never fully work, but there are enough admirable elements in it that make it worth the effort.

Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle keeps the characters constantly in motion from the beginning, which quickly establishes a cholera outbreak in India that leaves 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder) an orphan. Kelley Dorney personifies cholera as she dances around the sick with a red ribbon. Death has never looked lovelier, but the scene may be confusing to younger audience members in terms of who everyone is and how they are related to Mary.

Mary, the lone survivor of the outbreak, is sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven (Derrick Davis). Once there, she doesn't see much of him, as he is consumed by grief for his wife, Lily (Sierra Boggess), and lets his brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar) control household matters. Mary, left to entertain herself outside with some help from the manor staff, discovers Lily's garden and finds she has a cousin, Colin (Reese Levine), Archibald's son. Colin has been kept bedridden by Neville, who claims the boy is very ill and needs special treatment.

That's a lot of characters to navigate, in addition to the ghosts of Mary's past in India, and Carlyle has smartly streamlined the musical by focusing on Mary's perspective. Hoder is rarely offstage for most of the two-hour, 15-minute runtime. In some ways, the child's viewpoint makes it easier to forgive that most of the adults are one-dimensional, but it doesn't give the talented adult actors much to do but sound lovely.

Julia Lester and Emily Jewel Hoder in The Secret Garden
Julia Lester and Emily Jewel Hoder in The Secret Garden
(© Matthew Murphy)

Boggess haunts the stage in Ann Hould-Ward's ethereal costumes. She is a memory, a perfect angel to those who lost her, and that doesn't leave much room for characterization. Archibald is a mysterious figure to Mary, and Neville is a sinister villain. This has more to do with the material than the performances, and it is a pleasure to hear them sing Lucy Simon's score, which sounds great with Danny Troob's new orchestrations. The duet "Lily's Eyes," in which both brothers sing of their love for Lily, is probably the most famous song in the show, and Davis and Lazar sing the hell out of it. It's just too bad we don't get to know their characters better.

Julia Lester as the chambermaid Martha and John-Michael Lyles as her brother and gardener Dickon are given more to work with, because Mary spends the most time with them, and thus their characters have more personality. Dickon and Mary's "Wick" at the start of Act 2 is a charming number, and Martha's "Move On" is a scene-stealer.

There are many improvements to the original material, most importantly that the Hindi sections have been updated, so it's a shame that so many of the emotional moments, especially the ending, feel hollow. The happily-ever-after comes too quickly to feel earned. At least the concept is consistent throughout, which extends to Jason Sherwood's set, which encourages audience members to use their imagination. The swirling structure in the center could be a tree trunk or a cyclone of wind or whatever else you see. The sun or moon, depending on how it's lit (Ken Billington and Brian Monahan did the lighting), that moves across the stage also looks like the rings of a tree.

As for the titular garden, it is also mostly imagined except for the door leading to it. It's an economical approach that adds whimsy to the sometimes-grim musical, but one longs to see the transformed garden after it's brought back to life. There is an arch of roses that suggests the transformation, but it lacks a wow factor. Like the musical as a whole, it's nice, but something is missing to take it from surface-level enjoyable to truly moving.

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The Secret Garden

Closed: March 26, 2023