Center Theatre Group’s SECRET GARDEN is Not Quite in Bloom - Review

Los Angeles

The Secret Garden at CTG LA | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Chloe Conaway
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February 28, 2023 4:25 PM

At Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, director Warren Carlyle attempts an audacious, Broadway-aimed revival of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s very-90’s megamusical The Secret Garden, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel of the same name. His garden may be “wick,” but like Los Angeles during the freak winter storm we’re having, it’s not quite in bloom. 

Plucky Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder) is orphaned after her parents Albert and Rose (a deliciously callous Ali Ewoldt) die of cholera in turn-of-the-century India. She’s shipped off to a gloomy old house on a gloomier moor to live with her reclusive uncle Archibald Craven (Derrick Davis), who’s still grieving the loss of his beloved wife Lily (the ethereal Sierra Boggess). A locked, dead garden, a deathly ill cousin, and a glut of ghosts (draped in Ann Hould-Ward’s gauzy gowns) round things out. (As my date and I remarked at intermission, for a beloved children’s novel, The Secret Garden is really freaking depressing!) 

Through no fault of language coach Perviz Sawoski and dialect coach Joel Goldes’ admirable efforts to update the script, as detailed in the Los Angeles Times, the production struggles to escape the stereotypes embedded in its source material. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel ultimately relies on the limited perspective of its young protagonist, which is both simplistic and deeply grounded in colonialism. The tension between the mystical spells Mary learns from her Ayah (a loaded colonial term for nanny) and medical science propels the plot; it’s not the newest peer-reviewed treatments from Dr. Craven’s fancy medical journals that ultimately cure Colin, it’s the “magical spell” that “help[s] him get well.”  

Sierra Boggess | Photo: Matthew Murphy

The set, designed by Jason Sherwood, skews more minimalist than magical. His winding vine, present throughout, empty picture frames, and lavish chandeliers evoke a suitably gothic haunted mansion, but when the secret garden finally blooms, it’s underwhelming. Ken Billington and Brian Monahan’s lighting sharpens the audience’s focus given the often-crowded stage (Carlyle’s choreography calls for the near-constant presence of ghosts, suffocating Archibald and Mary with spectral shadows).

Marsha Norman’s book, though uneven, shines brightest in its quiet moments. “The Girl I Mean to Be” showcases Mary’s Virginia Woolf-esque longing for a room (garden?) of her own  (“I need a place where I can hide/Where no one sees my life inside/Where I can make my plans, and write them down/So I can read them”).  And the haunting “A Bit of Earth” beautifully captures Archibald’s feelings of anguish and inadequacy as Mary’s guardian. (“Why can’t she ask for a treasure?/Something that money can buy,/That won’t die!/When I’d give her the world,/She asks, instead/For some earth”). Lucy Simon’s score is unremarkable, but serviceable. 

That the mostly-forgettable score brought me to tears is a testament to the phenomenal performances. 

Emily Jewel Hoder’s Mary Lennox blends the impudence of Veruca Salt with the rage of Billy Elliot. 

Derrick Davis deftly embodies despondent widower, cautiously lovestruck adolescent, and clueless uncle to give us an exquisitely vulnerable Archibald Craven. (Did his “Where In the World” make me spend half an hour scouring YouTube to see if he’s ever played Javert? Maybe…) 

Julia Lester | Photo: Matthew Murphy

Sierra Boggess elevates Lily’s one-dimensional role with characteristically angelic vibrato; Aaron Lazar is appropriately menacing, if underutilized, as the scheming Neville, and John-Michael Lyles’ mischievous Dickon delivers welcome joy with his catchy “Wick” 

With a cast this stacked, it’s hard to steal the show. But the magnetic Julia Lester (Martha) comes close. From her rollicking “If I Had a Fine White Horse” to her tender “Hold On,” her performance alone is worth the price of admission. 

Warren Carlyle’s revival isn’t revelatory. But not all theater needs to be. Noticing the little girl behind me sitting on her grandmother’s lap, spellbound, I couldn’t help but remember seeing The Secret Garden with my grandmother at a cozy community theater. Though the musical meanders, there’s something for children and adults to connect to here, and arguably more importantly, something for them to connect over. 

If you’re going to see the musical, this is the cast to see. The production’s spark may still be asleep, but this outstanding cast is trying its hardest to clear away the dead parts.  

The Secret Garden is now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through March 26. For tickets and more information, click here

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Chloe Conaway

Chloe is a student at UCLA School of Law and lifelong musical nerd. When she’s not reading the tax code or hunting down the perfect smoothie, she’s searching for the best theater on the West Coast.