‘The Secret Garden’ blossoms ethereally at the Ahmanson
In the musical “The Secret Garden”—continuing at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through March 26—talented performers on an ethereal set with a spiraling fabric stairway bring to life the story of a spirited orphan in a home haunted by the ghosts of memory.
Based on the 1911 novel by British writer Frances Hodgson Burnett, “The Secret Garden” was first performed as a musical 80 years later in 1991, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon. This revival production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, is not only well-paced but trimmed of less relevant material and with some of its original racist essentialism reduced.
The story of “The Secret Garden” centers on young English girl Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder), raised in India during British rule but sent to her uncles’ home in the Yorkshire moors after her parents die during a cholera outbreak that kills everyone she knows.
While costumes (Ann Hould-Ward) are appropriately late Victorian, the figure of Cholera (Kelley Dorney)—dancing around her victims before strangling them with a red scarf—strikes an odd note, clad in a skin-toned body suit adorned with henna patterns. This codes Cholera as an Indian disease (which is okay, the first recorded cholera pandemic having emerged there in 1817), but in a discordantly modern way.
Though the orphaned young Mary soon leaves India behind for England, the memories and ghosts of her Indian caretakers (Yamuna Meleth as her ayah and Vishal Vaidya as Fakir) and parents (Ali Ewoldt as Rose Lennox and John Krause as Capt. Albert Lennox) stay with her. We see them walking near her—wearing white Indian clothing, dress and military uniform—whenever she struggles or actively thinks of them.
Mary’s aunt Lily Craven (Sierra Boggess)—who had died in Mary’s new home shortly after childbirth a decade earlier—similarly floats across the stage in flowing white, singing in a haunting soprano. Despite their palpable presence and other gothic elements, “The Secret Garden” not really a ghost story. The spirits are serenely assuring, observant and supportive rather than weepy or vengeful.
Instead, it is Archibald “Archie” Craven (Derrick Davis) who still laments his wife Lily’s death, unable to find any joy in life, even when his niece Mary arrives. Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar)—Mary’s other uncle who mostly runs the home since Archie comes and goes—harbors secrets of his own and wants to send Mary off to boarding school.
Like the latent flowers in Lily’s “secret” garden, the family’s secrets come to light due to Mary’s obstinate determination—with help from merry maid Martha (Julia Lester), tough but kind groundskeeper Ben (Mark Capri) and spry gardener Dickon (warmly played by John-Michael Lyles)—returning life and love to the home in various ways.
All the actors are pitch-perfect in their roles, including the astonishingly mature young Hoder as Mary and Reese Levine as her young cousin Colin Craven. Lester animates maid Martha with a Yorkshire accent and lively singing, shining in “If I Had a Fine White Horse” to get Mary to go play on the moors. And one could listen all day to Davis’s rich baritone as Archie grieving for Lily in “A Bit of Earth.”
Resonant songs, captivating staging and exceptional talent imbue this revival production of “The Secret Garden” with poignancy, humor and delight. The set alone (designed by Jason Sherwood with lighting by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan)—with its wraithlike central spiral and glowing garden—enchants with whimsy and magic. “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” as the company sings, captures perfectly this must-see musical.
“The Secret Garden” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through March 26, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Ticket prices start at $40 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Run time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. Masking is optional.