THE SECRET GARDEN
The very appreciative opening night audience at the Ahmanson Theatre went nuts over The Secret Garden, a reworked version of the much-lauded ’90s Broadway musical.
I didn’t totally agree with the rest of the assemblage, but I did enjoy some aspects of the show, even though it didn’t come close to living up to my most likely way-too-high expectations. Mr. X always tells me to have low ones, so I won’t be disappointed, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. And this was one of those cases.
Honestly, I think I was tricked by the stunning artwork for all the ads for the show. It gave me the erroneous impression that the actual production would feature a sumptuous garden, the likes of which I had never seen before. And I had been looking forward to even just that one visual for months.
But what I got instead was one of those nearly-bare stages with different bits of scenery floating in to delineate the scenes. I could have handled that for anything other than the garden, which my mouth had been watering for since I first heard that The Secret Garden was coming to the state-of-the-art Ahmanson.
I have never looked forward to a show because of what I expected the set to look like before. I didn’t feel like using my imagination on this one.
So I was a bit let down from the get-go.
But there are many things to enjoy about The Secret Garden. First of all, the entire scenario picks-up, (quite a bit, actually,) when adorbs Reece Levine, who plays the ten-year-old boy, Colin, shows-up! He is precious, and a very funny little actor! I could have listened to just him speak all night!
Secondly, the young girl star, Emily Jewel Hoder, is a wonder. She has got to be on stage for ninety percent of the action, and she really does carry the show. And she has beautiful, confident posture, which is always a plus in an actor.
I sometimes joke that one of the only two groups of people I’m prejudiced against is *child actors, but I absolutely love these two; they’re very cute together. *[Note: The other is Hare Krishna, if you’re curious about my full quip.]
Then there’s the gorgeous singing voice of Aaron Lazar, of whom I was already a fan. At the end of 2021 at The Wallis, he played the Colin Firth part in the stage production of Love Actually Live, Mr. X’s favorite show. That very creative presentation is actually a musical, so I fell in love with Aaron’s voice then. And I hate to admit this, but I was actually already familiar with him from an obscure one-season TV show from 2020, Filthy Rich; I’m just about the only person on earth who watched it. (I really did keep trying to quit it, because it starred two nasty actors of whom I’m not a fan, both professionally and personally–Gerald McRaney and Kim Cattrall–but the inane story kept pulling me back.)
And The Secret Garden‘s occasional “chorus,” (of what I assume are all ghosts,) sounds great.
The beginning of the show brings an interesting parallel to modern life, especially to audiences who are aware that this production was supposed to run here a few years ago, but was postponed due to the Covid pandemic. So when The Secret Garden opens with the depiction of India’s real-life cholera pandemic in 1911, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, (and made the main character in this show an orphan,) I’m sure visions of what we all went through in the past three years passed though many an audience member’s mind. It sure did mine.
That bit of tragic comparison was poignant, but there was also quite a bit of head-scratching strangeness along the way. First of all, the writers of the musical changed the character of the doctor from how he was created in the novel. They portray him here as the brother of the young girl’s guardian uncle, (who took her in after the death of her parents,) and turned him into a villain of sorts, when in the original classic 1911 tale, the doctor is an unnamed cousin, who’s described by the author as “not an unscrupulous man, though he was a weak one, and he did not intend to let [Colin] run into actual danger.” So that change of character seems sort-of unnecessary, except as the impetus for a dramatic song or two. (And it does make for the biggest laugh near the end of the presentation.)
Secondly, after the first scene, which takes place in India, the action is all in England. But all the actors’ accents are so different. I didn’t know if that was part of the narrative, or if the cast just couldn’t get it together. Perhaps they all needed a dialect coach for this one. From her heavy brogue, it seems that the girl’s maid, Martha, is from Ireland, although I thought I heard a character mention she’s from England. But her brother in the show has a completely different accent. It was all kind-of annoying to me. (But I really think I’m the only person who was bothered by that, so it’s really no big deal; I just felt the need to mention it.)
Also, (and I think this bit is part of the novel, as well,) if the little boy, Colin, had been bedridden from birth, as they kept saying, there is no way he could all of a sudden be able to walk, even a little bit, almost as soon as he gets out of the house! Doesn’t everyone know that you have to crawl before you can walk? Come on, people! As Johnny Carson said to me the first time I was on The Tonight Show, give me a break here! (By the way, has anyone else noticed this similar storyline to 1881’s Heidi, who, with the help of her grandfather, nurses her wheelchair-bound friend Klara back to health? Or is that just me again?)
Another thing that bothered me is that the show has no memorable songs. I feel that a musical should afford the audience the fun of leaving the theatre humming at least a bit of a tune!
But absolutely worst of all is that several times throughout the script, mention is made that Archibald, the uncle, (and a main character, to boot,) is an unattractive hunchback, but the person playing him is Derrick Davis, a gorgeous hunk of man, whose posture is impeccable! First of all, does no one connected with this show know how to do make-up to make someone less attractive?! And worse, did the wardrobe people never hear of a pillow??? Or at least something to show even a hint of hump! I sure hope they’re not the ones doing the designing if someone ever revives the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame!!!
And I’m not even going to mention what you all know by now is one of my pet peeves: entertainments mis-portraying gender, age, or race, which drives me crazy trying to figure-out if those portrayals are part of the story or just “diverse” casting. I’m all for every deserving actor to be working, but I doubt there were many mixed-race couples in 1911. (Heck, I was half of one not too long ago, and we were tortured by many all those decades after this tale, so I can’t imagine people accepting it way back then.) It seems even less likely that there were mixed-race siblings back then, like there are in this show. It’s just confusing. [Note: To further explain my thoughts on this topic: My friend and I saw a show a few months ago where the sexagenarian writer cast herself in the lead role of…a teen-ager! We kept waiting for that age discrepancy to be revealed as part of the narrative. But, of course, it was not. So we were left confused the whole time. We kept asking each other, “Did the character say she was sixteen or sixty?” Finally, another cast member explained the situation to us later.]
And lastly, outside of that “cholera” opening, the story was a bit boring for me in Act I; I had a hard time getting into it. But, happily for me, it got more interesting in Act II.
Speaking of interesting, that the cast is listed in the program alphabetically is exactly that. I don’t remember ever seeing that before, (or maybe I just didn’t notice it.) They’re usually listed in either order of appearance or importance. It does make it a bit difficult to quickly figure-out who’s who, but again, no biggie; just noting it.
All things considered, The Secret Garden is a worthwhile, quality production, so if you have the chance to see it, I say go for it. No matter if the show gets to your soul or not, I think you’ll be entertained.
One tiny warning, though: even though the novel is in the category of Children’s Literature, I don’t think this is one for the kiddies. It’s not fun enough, it’s sort-of confusing, and it’s filled with ghosts, sickness, and death. Take them to an actual garden instead.
The Secret Garden running through March 26, 2023
Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave.