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REVIEW: "THE SECRET GARDEN" — Center Theatre Group @ Ahmanson Theatre

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

A Charming and Mystical Timeless Classic!


Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel about a young girl's struggle to find herself in an alien society now permeates the halls of the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through March 26th. But whatever heroine Mary Lennox is made of, it is clearly not merely sugar and spice.

Wrenched from a life of privilege in India, and shipped halfway around the world to the dismal Yorkshire estate of her uncle, she must come to terms with her grief over the gruesome deaths of her parents. Unfortunately, her uncle's pathological depression caused by the loss of his young and beautiful wife may be more than she can take. Ironically, the characters in her disrupted life story are drawn with little ambiguity, and she finds herself emotionally and morally challenged to the point of being, at times, her own worst enemy.

With its iconic score by the late great Lucy Simon, and a brilliant, updated book by Marsha Norman, “The Secret Garden” brings a whole new generation back to the theatre, the first to experience Warren Carlyle’s fresh and authentic take on this beloved musical.

Foreground (L to R) to Background (L to R): Emily Jewel Hoder and Susan Denaker, John Krause, Ali Ewoldt, Vishal Vaidya and Yamuna Meleth in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre

Nominated for seven Tony Awards and winner of Best Book of a Musical as well as two Drama Desk Awards, this enchanting musical is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's turn-of-the-century tale about understanding and compassion. Guided by an exceptionally beautiful score, the audience was swept away with Mary's unapologetic curiosity as she is joined with unlikely companions transporting her on a thrilling quest to untangle the pieces of her family's past and – most importantly – discover herself in the process.

Raised in India and orphaned in a cholera epidemic, Mary, played by Emily Jewel Hoder (coming to us straight from Broadway’s “The Music Man”), is taken in by her embittered Uncle Archibald, played by a wonderful Derrick Davis. His Misselthwaite Manor estate in North Yorkshire, England, with its symbolic maze of gardens, is a morbid shrine to his beloved wife, Lily (Sierra Boggess), who was the sister of Mary’s mother. Lily died while giving birth to his son, Colin (Reese Levine), who is looked after by Archibald’s venal and jealous younger brother, Neville (Aaron Lazar). Uncle Archie locked the manor's garden after his wife, Lily, died and shut off their then newborn son, Colin, in a wing of his own to flounder in a presupposed, yet undiagnosed crippling sickness of sorts.

From L to R: Emily Jewel Hoder, Sierra Boggess and Derrick Davis in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre

The story is a steady journey from clammy darkness into blazing light. Lucy Simon, who wrote the underappreciated music for Broadway’s “Doctor Zhivago,” is an unabashed pop romantic whose songs for the musical express heartfelt sentiments with an eloquent simplicity. Hers is a sensibility well suited to a post-Victorian allegory peopled by restless ghosts and pervaded with a supernatural hush.

The production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle in a broad storybook style, is a beguiling and more than satisfying update to the original work. The score’s best songs — “I Heard Someone Crying,” “Come to My Garden,” (sung with a rich bursting warmth by Ms. Boggess) and “How Could I Ever Know?” — all expresses pent-up yearnings whose release is a powerful force.

The stage is populated with recurring waltz sequences, variously depressed mortals and suddenly materializing sopranos with glumly low spirits as Archibald's wife, Mary's parents and others who have died keep appearing and disappearing. Mary and Colin are hostile, disagreeable and throw tantrums, Archibald sulks, and Dr. Craven, his younger brother, continually plots to send Mary away. It can be said that Misselthwaite Manor lacks mirth.

From L to R: Sierra Boggess and Derrick Davis in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre

Yet, to the credit of Director Carlyle’s staging, as well as a definite upturn in the general aura cast by very personable actors, the more commonly dour oppressively symbol-strewn elements of Norman’s book is downplayed using a humorous approach in places, rendering a brighter and more highlighted performance. Still, there is little that can be done about those lurking, hovering phantoms that sometimes emerge, enframed as if they were singing portraits. It simply comes with the property.

Lively roles, however, are all cheerily played belonging to Martha (Julia Lester), Mary's servant; Dickon (John-Michael Lyles), Martha's brother, who knows how to make a garden grow and has a nearly magical way with animals; and Ben (Mark Capri), the old caretaker who knows the garden's history. They can all be depended on to deliver a few resounding wake-up calls.

The Indian traditional number (“Come Spirit, Come Charm”), a sprightly dance performed with striking elegance by Mary, Martha, Dickon and Company, provides welcomed diversity on an otherwise conventional score. Vocal execution, particularly from the ghost characters, are as exhilarating as it is foreboding, and is dramatically adroit throughout. But nothing about the story can distract from the power of the cast that has been assembled to perform it or the technical virtuosity with which it is staged. T

Reese Levine (center) and the cast of "The Secret Garden" in the revival production of “The Secret Garden” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre

The costumes, set and lighting are hauntingly beautiful, depicting a world of decaying grandeur that slowly comes back to life. But the real stand-out is the music, which is rich and beautifully sung. Aaron Lazar and Derrick Davis’ duet “Lily’s Eyes” is a superb number (as Dr. Craven and Archibald) ending on a soaring note that induces a burst of adrenaline.

Throughout the play, the stage choreography was extremely creative. The ever-changing walls made by the arms of the company (the spirits of those who died in India) in “I Heard Someone Crying” had a mesmerizing effect, and of particular allure is the scene in the garden where Mary sings the poetic, “The Girl I Mean to Be.”

“The Secret Garden” is a wonderful reminder of the healing power of nature, laughter, and love. It is a beautiful story, a profound story…and one with a simple, underlying moral. There is something about Mary’s and Colin’s transformations, however, that is very soothing to the soul. With a lush score filled with haunting operetta style ballads and English folk melodies, this magnificent, heart-warming musical is filled with much charm and wholesomeness.

This revival production, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett of the same name, includes book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon, and direction and choreography by Tony Award winner Warren Carlyle. The creative team includes Rob Berman (Music Supervision and Additional Arrangements), Danny Troob (Orchestrator), Dan Redfeld (Music Director), Jason Sherwood (Set Designer), Ann Hould-Ward (Costume Designer), Ken Billington (Co-Lighting Designer), Brian Monahan (Co-Lighting Designer), Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Designer), Victoria Tinsman (Wig and Makeup Designer), Michael Donovan, CSA and Richie Ferris, CSA (Casting), as well as David Franklin (Production Stage Manager).

Joining Drama Desk and Drama League nominee Sierra Boggess (“The Little Mermaid,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) playing Lily Craven, are actors Emily Jewel Hoder (“The Music Man,” “Les Misérables”) as the adventurous 10-year-old lead, Mary Lennox; Derrick Davis (“The Lion King,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) as lord of Misselthwaite Manor Archibald Craven; Aaron Lazar (“The Light in the Piazza,” “Les Misérables”) as the embittered and outspoken Dr. Neville Craven; Julia Lester (“Into the Woods,” Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”) as the young and spunky housemaid of Misselthwaite Manor, Martha; and John-Michael Lyles (“A Strange Loop,” “Sweeney Todd”) as Dickon, the imaginative and caring brother of Martha.

Additionally, the cast includes: Terron Brooks (Major Shelley), Mark Capri (Ben Weatherstaff), Peyton Crim (Major Holmes), Randi De Marco (swing), Susan Denaker (Mrs. Medlock), Kelley Dorney (Mrs. Winthrop/Cholera), Ali Ewoldt (Rose Lennox), William Foon (Colin Craven alternate), Ava Madison Gray (Mary Lennox at certain performances), Emily Jewel Hoder (Mary Lennox), John Krause (Captain Albert Lennox), Aaron Lazar (Dr. Neville Craven), Reese Levine (Colin Craven), Sam Linkowski (swing), Yamuna Meleth (Ayah), Cassandra Marie Murphy (Alice), Ariel Neydavoud (Lieutenant Shaw), James Olivas (Lieutenant Wright), Sadie Brickman Reynolds (Mary Lennox at certain performances), Kyla Jordan Stone (Mrs. Shelley), and Vishal Vaidya (Fakir).

If ever there was an example of the wonderful results that brilliant production values and superb casting can achieve, this touring company has realized it. The show is scheduled to run February 19th through March 26th. Tickets for “The Secret Garden” start at $40 and are available through, or in person at the Ahmanson Theatre, The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 2PM and 8PM, and Sunday at 1PM and 6:30PM.

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade


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