The Secret Garden review: The musical classic blooms anew in revised Los Angeles production
Grief is a garden. Something we must tend to, lest the weeds and gnarls of it overtake us. Something that can bloom into a beautiful tether to the people we've loved and lost.
That is the notion at the heart of The Secret Garden, first a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett and also a 1991 Broadway musical, now significantly revised with eyes on a Broadway run, at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre.
The musical has always been a bit like its heroine — young, orphaned Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder) — at first, difficult to warm too, a bit peculiar, but ultimately, a force that moves others toward healing. Here, the production as directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, fresh off helming the acclaimed Hugh Jackman revival of The Music Man, is streamlined, tightening up Marsha Norman's original book and re-flowing Lucy Simon's radiant score.
While Burnett's novel was focused on Mary, who must move to England and the imposing Gothic home of her uncle Archibald Craven (Derrick Davis) when her parents die of cholera, the musical lends equal attention to the story's adults. Archibald is crippled by his grief after losing his beloved wife, Lily (an ethereal Sierra Boggess), whose presence haunts the halls and grounds of Misselthwaite Manor. He is consumed that he can't bear to visit his own son, Colin (Reese Levine), who is cared for by his brother, the less-than-noble Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar).
This update leans into the things that make the show delightfully unusual and altogether special, threading the show with the spirits of the past in a way that pays homage to Burnett's fantastical realism.
Carlyle further enhances that with interpretive touches like the addition of cholera in personified form (the triple threat, Kelley Dorney, who also brings the house down with a scene of comedic relief as a Scottish school mistress). It could be a pretentious choice, but instead, it's a starkly moving one, allowing us to understand from the opening moments how this story is one that lives and breaths on allegory and physical representations of things that are not there.
From its opening moments, Lily is ever-present, looking over Mary while she's still a child in India. Boggess hovers at the edges of the stage, passing behind backdrops or lingering on the stairs. Her physical presence is a reminder of the ways in which she is never far from the minds of the denizens of Misselthwaite. In a lesser actress' hands, this might seem like a throwaway role as a character who is always there, but mostly speaks in sporadic moments of truly angelic song. But Boggess (who was, in fact, an actual Disney princess as Broadway's little mermaid, Ariel) sparkles, literally with the glittery ribbons of her costumes, and metaphorically, as a bright light nudging those she loves to a future loosed from all-consuming grief.
The role of Mary Lennox is a big ask for a child actor, a character that is in nearly every scene and the emotional core of the story, as well as the audience's totem amidst a crop of larger-than-life characters. But Emily Jewel Hoder is more than up to the task, almost miraculously so considering she joined the cast fairly late in the rehearsal process, joining the previously announced Ava Madison Gray and Sadie Brickman Reynolds, who still play Mary in some performances, though Hoder carries the bulk of the evening shows.
One could say she's a star in the making, but frankly, she already is one. She carries the weight of the production's heavy themes on her slight shoulders with remarkable grace, nimbly springing from precocious curiosity to deep longing to childish stubbornness from one moment to the next.
Derrick Davis and Aaron Lazar are perfect foils as two brothers who loved the same woman (and boy do they deliver on the score's standout number, "Lily's Eyes"). As grief has made Davis' Archibald fearful and isolated, it has soured Neville's unrequited longing into a bitter resentment. But they both temper these men with shades of the other, making their familial link evident, as we see the different outcomes of the hurt and loss in them both that highlights how neither is fully hero or villain.
In a cast and ensemble full of stellar talent, Julia Lester is also a standout, following up her recent turn as Little Red Riding Hood in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods with another sassy lady with oodles of heart. She is Martha, a maid who grants Mary and Colin the respect and affection they are often denied by the adults in their lives. When she belts out "Hold On" late in the second act, it's a welcome surprise that the sparkle in her eye and comedic timing are equally matched by her powerful voice.
Carlyle's decision to lean into the ghostly allegory of the story, the prevalent sense of being haunted by our past, is echoed in Jason Sherwood's set design. The proceedings center around a swirling piece of fabric that shifts with the light (and the seasons) and stands in for everything from the Manor's staircase to a tree in the titular garden. It's inventive and evocative, particularly in starkly visual moments like the end of Act I where Mary stands in a rain storm (a theatrical effect that is extremely trendy at the moment, but nevertheless thrilling to witness).
But the metaphor of the design doesn't push far enough when it comes to the Secret Garden, relying on a wooden tree and a hobbit hole-worthy door. The garden's blooming should be a transformative moment, but instead, a rather sterile arched trellis is supposed to fill in for the glory of nature.
Still, in spite of that, The Secret Garden looks and plays perhaps the best it ever has, with attention given to everything from tweaks to the story's inherent colonialism to the deletion of songs and scenes that slow the action down.
Instead, like it's titular garden, the show now plants the seed of its allegorical expressionism in its opening moments, tending and nurturing the concept until it blooms into full-hearted, emotionally rending glory in 11 o'clock number "How Could I Know" and a moving finale.
It is difficult, especially as a child, to give voice to grief, to understand its furrows and its seasons. As rendered in this lushly experimental production, The Secret Garden is a beautiful, affirming story about finding a language for our grief and learning how to bloom and live in hope again. B+