Child drama, adult trauma

The last of the cast of "The Secret Garden." Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

Scattered leaves

“The Secret Garden” wilts at the Ahmanson

by Bondo Wyszpolski

In the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett a cholera epidemic sweeps through British India and 10-year-old Mary Lennox is orphaned, then sent to Uncle Archibald Craven in Yorkshire, to a forlorn mansion that would be at home in a gothic tale by Hawthorne or Poe. Mary doesn’t easily adjust to her new surroundings or to its residents, and for good reason.

The book has subsequently been revived and molded into other mediums, including the 1991 musical with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman with music by Lucy Simon. It’s been fiddled with over the years, most recently by Warren Carlyle, who directed and choreographed the current show at the Ahmanson Theatre, onstage through March 26.

In the opening scene, Cholera (a healthy Kelley Dorney) glides among a bevy of Edwardian-era garbed men and women holding a red scarf that she lightly but swiftly pulls across their throats. It’s an effective way to symbolize death, sudden or otherwise. But before we depart India, leaving behind Mary’s ayah, or nanny (Yamuna Meleth), we’re privy to a Hindi chant by a fakir (Vishal Vaidya). The latter actor has insisted, this time out, that the chant be more authentic than in past productions.

At the train station in England, Mary (Emily Jewel Hoder) is met by the stern Mrs. Medlock (Susan Denaker), who will assume the villainess role, so to speak, along with the story’s appointed villain, Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar), the brother of the aforementioned Archibald (Derrick Davis).

Julia Lester as Martha and Emily Jewel Hoder as Mary in “The Secret Garden.” Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

Mary is a fish out of water, and rather bratty as a result, though she does have an ally of sorts in the chambermaid Martha (Julia Lester, who must have had her extended family present on opening night).

Derrick Davis as Archibald Craven and Sierra Boggess as Lily Craven in “The Secret Garden. Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

Then there’s Dickon (John-Michael Lyles), who’s apparently Martha’s brother, or maybe her son. He helps to discover the secret garden, which has been walled off long ago after Archibald’s wife Lily died, just after giving birth to a son, Colin (Reese Levine, who fusses as if he just came off “Oliver!”). Although Lily (Sierra Boggess) is no longer among the living she seems fated to hang around and, like the ghost she is, floats in and out through most of the scenes. In one sense she’s always present, because Archibald, grim and gloomy, grieves for her constantly.

So what happened to Colin? The child has been confined to bed since birth, watched over by Neville, his doctor and uncle, who seems to relish the fact that the boy will remain bedridden, with no chance of ever living a normal life. Mary chances upon him and now we have two bratty children in the cast (good actors, sure, but annoying characters).

Let’s step back and look at the sets. Well, there’s just the one, dominated by a large curdled sausage-shaped abstraction that spirals down from the rafters. It does change colors and even appears to change texture, but it’s rather problematic and seems to get in everyone’s way. There are a few props, Colin’s bed, an armchair, desk, etc, along with various items that descend from the fly loft. There’s also a portable round door or gate that serves as the entrance into the garden, and I guess a few other things that memory has already kicked to the sidelines.

The musical accompaniment is performed live, conducted by Dan Redfeld, with about a dozen players in the pit. I didn’t find the songs to be anything special, and I didn’t hear anyone humming them as we exited the theater.

Emily Jewel Hoder as Mary and John-Michael Lyles as Dickon in “The Secret Garden.” Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

The pacing of “The Secret Garden” is rather snappy, as apparently the indolent parts have been cut, and I can’t help but think of all the changes that Major League Baseball has instituted for this season in order to speed up the game. It’s said that our attention spans have grown shorter and the last thing we want to do is to get bored or to bore others. Director Carlyle, as mentioned, also did the choreography, which is fine in some ways but when he allows groups of people to drift onto the stage, sort of swept onto it as if blown there by a gust of wind, we may wonder if they serve any purpose other than to confuse us. Perhaps they are a visual but silent Greek chorus.

Because the musical is geared for the all-ages crowd, all’s well that ends well, with the secret garden symbolizing cycles and rebirth. Neville Craven will be sent packing, Mary will introduce Colin to the garden and he’ll learn to walk, and Archibald will even get to sing a duet with his deceased but beloved Lily.

Sierra Boggess as Lily Craven, Aaron Lazar as Dr. Neville Craven, and Derrick Davis as Archibald Craven in “The Secret Garden,” Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

However, this is a dreadful production, and the casting is atrocious. Sierra Boggess is really too exceptional of a singer to be in this mediocre musical. Although in a recent interview Vishal Vaidya emphasized the need for the show (meaning the representation of India) to be culturally correct, Carlyle has otherwise enlisted actors for the sake of politically correct diversity. Derrick Davis is imposing, a classically tragic figure, but an African American actor in the role of Archibald Craven makes about as much sense as putting Brad Pitt in the role of Jackie Robinson and saying, Hey, what’s the problem? And there’s dreadlocked Dickon, who looks and acts like he should be rafting with Huck and Jim down the Mississippi. Sorry to put it this way, but both of these actors, talent aside, stick out like sore thumbs.

That’s really the icing on the cake to what is furthermore an uninspired and tedious show, no matter how many minutes have been trimmed.

The Secret Garden is onstage through March 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Dark Mondays. Tickets, $40 to $155. Call (213) 972-4400 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Tickets to this show and 75+ additional productions starting at $20 are available now during LA Theatre Week. For details, visit theatreweek.com/los-angeles/ ER

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