After years in development, the Broadway revival of The Secret Garden, The Musical finally opened on Sunday, February 26th at the Ahmanson Theatre to much deserved fanfare from a capacity audience where children and adults alike reveled in the production celebrating Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel. Undoubtedly, as the premiere in Los Angles evidenced, this Marsha Norman-written musical is one that rewards those who suspend disbelief and become immersed in an adventure that turns a haunting tragedy into a blooming celebration of human goodness, triumph, and even miracles.
The early 1900s premise follows 10-year-old English girl Mary Lennox whose life is catastrophically upended by cholera in the British territory of Bombay, India. The death of her parents and other loved ones necessitates that Mary move to Yorkshire, England and live in the manor of her uncle-by-marriage, Archibald Craven, husband to her deceased aunt Lily. Further elevating the intrigue is that the shared familial losses between Mary and Archibald have reappeared as spirits at the residence that is also inhabited by Archibald’s dubious brother, Dr. Neville Craven, in addition to a stern housekeeper named Mrs. Medlock, a sympathetic chambermaid known as Martha, her bohemian brother Dickon, Ben the loyal gardener, and Colin, a bed-ridden boy who has been mysteriously sequestered. Ultimately, Lily’s garden, which was once accessible, and now out of sight and under lock and key since her passing, beckons Mary as a wondrous and unifying wellspring.
From the very first scene, it becomes apparent that director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has succeeded in getting theatregoers to happily surrender to a narrative that, while on the surface may seem intended for children only, is probably more impactful for adults who are likely to see any built-up cynicism washed away and restored by an almost divine warmth. Lucy Simon’s soul-stirring melodies, Rob Berman’s musical supervision, Anne Hould-Ward’s Edwardian costumes, and Jason Sherwood’s sets — central to which is a pleated, serpentine-shaped silk illuminated with different colors by lighting designers Ken Billington and Brian Monahan — have amounted to a beautiful, moonlit spookiness that envelops the stage. The apparitions, candelabra, kerosene lamps, and intermittent thunder are stylistically similar to another beloved musical: The Phantom of the Opera.
Adding to the comparison is the fact that Derrick Davis, who portrays the tormented but still well-intentioned Archibald, recently dazzled spectators as the formidable Phantom. Here, Davis finds a resounding emotional depth to a character whose inner conflict and actions — over losing Lily and not being able to be the loving uncle Mary desires — comprise the linchpin of the musical. As his disposition shows signs of turning, with “A Bit of Earth,” and then especially “Where in the World,” we witness a man baring not only his unvarnished helplessness, but an unassailable integrity under layers of hurt. Without Davis’ full body-and-mind commitment to the spiritually besieged Archibald, The Secret Garden’s denouement wouldn’t be half as fulfilling.
The headliner is, of course, Sierra Boggess who is beautifully poetic as Lily Craven, a chiffon-dressed ghost whose seeming silhouette drifts and echoes to and fro her husband Archibald’s home. Boggess’ delineation is as simultaneously detached from reality as a specter would be, yet it is paradoxically lifted by a forceful passion that emotionally rocks the observer. A select few have as much coloratura and volume to their voice as Boggess does, whose operatic splendor spellbinds and imbues the musical with much sincerity. Not to mention, in another coincidence, Boggess, like Davis, is also connected to The Phantom of the Opera, having garnered plaudits as Christine Daaé.
Emoting way beyond her years and carrying a substantial responsibility is the precocious Emily Jewel Hoder whose Mary Lennox is delightful, funny, and affecting. There are instances, too, when Mary can become boilingly defiant when wronged, which the young actress — who just finished her run as Amaryllis in Broadway’s The Music Man — is additionally able to pull off seamlessly. Besides having a superbly fine-tuned pitch to her voice and being able to harmonize on demand, Hoder earns the audience’s awe in an Act I-ending scene involving water, and particularly does Mary’s arc justice by sharing an endearing chemistry with Mark Capri’s Ben, Reese Levine’s Colin, Julia Lester’s Martha, and John-Michael Lyles’ Dickon.
Capri makes the audience smile as the lovable, humble, and faithful Ben Weatherstaff who has dedicated his life to the Craven family and their gardens; in fact, the innocence that comes through in Capri’s depiction is only matched by Hoder, as well as Levine, whose amiability as Colin immediately comes through with his comic timing during repartees with Hoder’s Mary and by convincingly selling the vulnerability of his persona; needless to say, the anticipation of seeing Colin’s story resolve never dwindles.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series star, Julia Lester, has potentially proven herself to be a major box-office draw if the loudly voiced adulation from attendees on opening night was any indication. Her performance lives up to expectations, too, with a rousing delivery of a Martha whose Yorkshire accent is idiosyncratically on display, along with a lightheartedness and steely nature that fuels the motivational and crowd-pleasing “Hold On.” Just as Martha takes a shine to Mary, so does the free-spirited Dickon, seen with a wooden staff in hand, who is integral in helping Mary enter the garden. Lyles inhabits the optimistic and Mother Nature-attuned Dickon with ease via energizing numbers that are notable for their percussion.
Aaron Lazar is impeccable casting personified as Dr. Neville Craven, who is sometimes at odds with Davis’ Archibald, as he is adamant about seeing Mary go off to school and leave the manor for good. Suffice it to say, Neville’s intentions border on the abstruse; we don’t quite know what to think of this doctor who has doubtlessly taken the Hippocratic Oath. Nevertheless, the mustachioed Lazar brings much venerability, juxtaposed against a lurking expediency, to the role.
Supporting-cast standouts include Susan Denaker who deserves acclaim for effectively pulling off the stringently rule-abiding Mrs. Medlock, and Kelley Dorney, who, while balletically moving around the stage, uses a red silk scarf to signify the destruction that cholera leaves in its wake. Dorney, moreover, doubles as headmistress Mrs. Winthrop who becomes comedically perturbed and shocked during a fiery exchange with Mary.
Overall, in a world fraught with incessant uncertainties and turmoil, a feel-good musical like The Secret Garden is the ideal salve to treat some of the dispiriting wounds incurred by many. It is a production that reminds how out of sadness, a perseverance may rise, alongside a togetherness founded on love that makes any harrowing past worth all its struggles. The long-awaited revival of The Secret Garden, as evocatively performed as it is by its stellar cast, and as favorably received as it was by 2,000 guests on opening night at the Ahmanson Theatre, might just see an extended run in New York sooner than later.
The Secret Garden runs through Sunday, March 26th. At certain performances, the role of Mary Lennox may be played by Ava Madison Gray or Sadie Brickman Reynolds; the role of Colin may also be played by William Foon.
For more information about the revival production of The Secret Garden at the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit: centertheatregroup.org