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Review: A reimagined ‘Secret Garden’ fails to flower anew at the Ahmanson Theatre


“The Secret Garden” could be considered a success when it first appeared on Broadway in 1991. The show ran for more than 700 performances and won three Tony Awards, including one for playwright Marsha Norman’s book.

But plenty of critics sniffed, and a sense lingered that a better musical was waiting to be unearthed from all the theatrical strata. Frank Rich ended his New York Times review by commenting on how the creative team adapted Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel: “Is it too crass to wish they turned the pages a little faster?”

The new production of “The Secret Garden,” which premiered Sunday at the Ahmanson Theater, appears to have taken Rich’s comment to heart. A new director, Warren Carlyle, streamlined the show by cutting 20 minutes of running time through a combination of textual cuts and more volatile scenic design choices.

But the result is not so much a rebirth of “The Secret Garden” as a reworked touring version. The musical, with a score by Lucy Simon with unrestrained operatic aspirations, is ready to hit the road. Without any sense of place, Jason Sherwood’s sets seem to have been designed only with logistical efficiency in mind.

Other changes have been made to bring the show more in line with contemporary cultural sensibilities. The approach to casting is now more diverse and the novel’s colonialist perspective, which the original Broadway production depicted in its careless references to India, has been cleaned up.

But the main issues that held the show back have not been addressed. A beloved children’s story is still incongruously disguised on stage as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. At the Sunday opening, I sat next to a cute girl who was generous with her laughing applause, but I wouldn’t want to introduce my nieces to Burnett’s wonderful story through a version that continues to outshine his gleeful youngsters with blandly drawn adults who Norman (contra Burnett) melodramatises.

This 1911 novel is both a product of its historical moment and, in its intuitive psychological understanding of human development, ahead of its time. The protagonist is a spoiled 10-year-old named Mary Lennox, born and raised in British India. Servants dance to this unruly youngster, whose hubris is no doubt fueled by her cold, aristocratic mother and absent-minded military captain father.

The sprawling Yorkshire estate that Mary is sent to after her parents die in a cholera outbreak is caught in the past. Dozens of locked rooms give the house a sense of ominous mystery, and the portraits of ancestors hanging on the walls place the girl under ghostly surveillance.

Life is grim for Mary until she discovers a secret walled garden that no one is allowed to enter. Archibald Craven, Mary’s uncle, had the entrance locked after his wife died, because her beloved refuge was too painful a reminder of the heavy loss that has robbed him of all happiness.

It’s not long before Mary, breaking the rules, finds the key to this wintry retreat. With the help of Dickon, a local nature-loving boy who is the brother of her chambermaid, and Colin Craven, Archibald’s ailing son who has been sequestered in the house, the garden is given new life – and with it its spiritual and moral life. of Mary and her even more unpleasantly imperious cousin, Colin.

Norman does not follow the exact genealogy of the characters in the novel. But her more significant (and, in my opinion, misguided) adjustment gives the adults, both living and dead, priority over the children.

Lily Craven, Archibald’s late wife, haunts the house almost like a secret author and leads the plot to a happy ending. The role is played by Sierra Boggess, whose exquisite warbling transforms a long-dead character into a central figure. (She’s not the only ghost on a show that also brings Mary’s parents and former servants back from the grave.)

The musical does not send the bereaved Archibald (Derrick Davis) as quickly as the book. His gloomy presence obscures the corridors of Misselthwaite Manor and threatens Mary’s freedom. When he finally leaves for the continent, Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar), who has been made a greedy rogue by Norman and who wants to inherit his brother Archibald’s estate, plans to rid the household of the troublesome Mary (Emily Jewel Hoder). .

The doctor fears that her budding friendship with Colin (Reese Levine) will have a positive effect on the health of the once bedridden boy. He doesn’t want Misselthwaite Manor’s heir alive to take over the house. But Norman’s dramatic maneuvers are more hackneyed than Burnett’s.

Emily Jewel Hoder as Mary Lennox, outside during a rainstorm, evoked by Jason Sherwood’s abstract landscape design.

(Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)

What the novel depicts in gray, the musical depicts in black and white. Burnett’s humane, nurturing vision is undermined by the urge to make the work much more dramatic.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Dickon to be the most endearing character in the book. (Ben Weatherstaff, the crabby, tender old gardener played vividly by Mark Capri in the production, is a close second.) The boy who charms wildlife and teaches Mary to appreciate the beauty of rural Yorkshire wins the affections of both Mary as Colin with his ability to accept all creatures on their own unruly terms.

For reasons that are unclear to me, Dickon (played by John-Michael Lyles) is reimagined in the musical as more aggressively puckish. Note to future adapters: gentleness can indeed be more theatrically engaging than empty boldness.

The production fails to create a cohesive theatrical world. Julia Lester’s Martha is sweetly earthy, but why does this young Yorkshire woman seem to have an Irish accent? Mrs Medlock (Susan Denaker), chief of servants at Misselthwaite Manor, told Martha that Mary wouldn’t be able to understand what she was saying if she didn’t tone down her thick Yorkshire accent, but the warning seems to be in vain.

Yet it is not so much the dialects that degenerate the production as the nowhere scenic design. Mary initially senses that the moor outside her bedroom window is terribly gloomy, but gradually comes to understand the beauty of the rugged landscape. That beauty is missing in an abstract set dominated by a black background, the twisting branch of a decrepit tree, a bewildering cylindrical object and a shape that looks like an internal organ but is a simulacrum for the sun and the moon.

It’s never a good sign when a musical makes you want to avert your eyes. But the glorious vocals will at least delight your ears. (Simon, who passed away last year, has written beautiful music, even if it doesn’t always serve the drama optimally.)

Boggess’ Lily sounds heavenly, Davis’ Archibald hypnotic, Lyles’ Dickon radiates natural vitality and Lester’s Martha bends the musical comedy in all directions. Even when a song appears to be imported from another show – like Lily and Archibald’s “Phantom of the Opera”-esque duet, “How Could I Ever Know” – the song is rendered to perfection.

But it’s in the deepening relationship between Hoder’s stubborn Mary and Levine’s compelling Colin that the juice of life flows through “The Secret Garden”. The transformation of these characters gets short shrift in the frantically layered book, but their truncated scenes of inner growth are a reminder of where the beating heart of this story is.

‘The Secret Garden’

Where: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m Tuesday to Friday, Saturday 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Ends March 26. (Check for exceptions.)
Tickets: $40-$165 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400, centrumtheatergroep.org
Duration: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission
COVID protocol: Masks are recommended. Updates available at centertheatregroup.org/safety

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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