The lush and whimsical score of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s “The Secret Garden” is given a beautiful, new production at the Ahmanson Theatre. Opening night saw an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd of fans of both the original Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel and of the 1991 musical. It’s a rare revival blessed with the brilliant casting of stars Sierra Boggess and Derrick Davis.
Based on the novel, the musical tells the story of Mary Lennox, a young girl newly orphaned in India during a cholera epidemic. She is sent to live with her troubled, widowed uncle Archibald at his English country estate. He is grieving and haunted by his memories and unable to cope with the illness of his only only son with his beloved Lily. Mary is a strong and feisty girl seeking solace herself which she finds with the housemaid, Martha, and her younger brother, groundskeeper Dickon as she discovers Lily’s secret garden left to wither after her death. The force of Mary’s will and curiosity, along with the magic found in the garden seems to unlock the spell of melancholy that had befallen the home and all of its inhabitants.
It’s a compelling story which the musical turns into a magical tale told in sweeping, operetta style along with playful English folk melodies sung by a sublime cast. They truly are the reason to see this production, specifically Davis and Boggess as Archibald and Lily Craven.
There are two show-stopping, breathtaking songs and both feature the virtuoso, soaring vocals of Davis. “Lily’s Eyes” comes near the end of the first act and is a searing male duet with Davis and a tormented Aaron Lazar as Dr. Neville Craven. The two men sing desperately about the love they both have for the deceased Lily and, as I mentioned, it stops the show. The second song that is truly transcendent comes near the end and is the love duet between Boggess and Davis, “How Could I Ever Know.” It is chill bump inducing and conjures feelings of Phantom – no surprise that Davis has played the Phantom and Boggess is known as one of the best Christines in Phantom history. That number alone is worth the ticket price.
Other standouts include a delightfully pixieish performance by John-Michael Lyles as Dickon, and Julia Lester as Martha. Lester brings an authentic earthiness to Martha and has a terrific voice featured in another highlight “Hold On”.
The entire cast is strong with most of them playing the ghosts of Mary’s recent past. Warren Carlyle’s smooth direction and choreography deftly details the action oftentimes with no words. The use of a dancer to represent cholera itself is especially effective.
Hats off once again to the terrific accent work, directed by dialect coach Joel Goldes. From the Yorkshire accents and the upper crust British along with the Indian accents carried through into the singing, we are swept up into Mary’s old and new world.
Fans of the original book and this score will have a lot to enjoy. For the uninitiated, I would suggest either reading the book or familiarizing yourself with the story as figuring out who’s who can be a bit confusing at the outset. But once settled in, the performances captivate.
“The Secret Garden” is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 26, 2023. Tickets are on sale now and start at $40. They will be available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.