Theatre Review: ‘The Secret Garden’ Both Blooms and Wilts in Equal Measure

Kevin Taft reviews the stage musical The Secret Garden, which certainly has its merits, but is perhaps just not all the story it needed to be.
User Rating: 6

The classic 1991 musical “The Secret Garden: The Musical” is back on stage in the Ahmanson Theatre’s brand-new re-imagining with some heavyweights on the cast list. Back with most of the original creative team, the musical based on the classic novel is given new life for today’s audience.

But is it worth planting the seeds to make this iteration of “The Secret Garden” grow?

It depends.

Two aspects to this re-staging will make it or break it for some people, and that is the production design and the cast vs. the book by Marsha Norman (“‘night Mother”) and music by Lucy Simon (sister of Carly and writer of the music for the 2011 musical “Dr. Zhivago.”)

There has been a hardcore fanbase for this show since it first landed on the scene, making a star out of Daisy Egan and winning Tony and Drama Desk Awards along the way. That said, the music won’t appeal to everyone, and the book seems to shortchange some key elements, instead leaning in too hard on the bratty children and a long-lost “romance” between Archibald Craven (Derrick Davis) and his deceased love Lily Craven (Sierra Boggess) who is a ghost the entire run of the show.

The classic book, various movie adaptations, and the musical follow Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder), who loses her parents to cholera in India and is sent to live with her Uncle Archie in a large, gloomy estate. While there, she befriends the nurse’s son Dickon (John-Michael Lyles), and the Major’s sickly son Colin. The three discover a “secret garden” that they help rejuvenate, which also helps rejuvenate their own lives in a number of potentially moving ways.

The best part of this new staging is the set itself. With a large twisty paper ribbon that winds across the stage like a paper house spiral staircase, the effect gives the play an ethereal quality. The ribbon changes color and appears sometimes to change texture as the characters move from the downtrodden estate to the garden outside. A Hobbit-style garden door appears to bring Mary to where she will spend most of her time, and when the garden is in full bloom, another set piece frames the cast fancifully. There’s even a moment of rain that looks beautiful as it falls on Mary, lit by a spotlight. (Although the image – while gorgeous – feels a tad pointless.) All of this makes the show look spectacular in a restrained way.

The cast is uniformly superb. Boggess can do no wrong with a voice snatched from the heavens her ghostly character hails from. Little Emily Jewel Hoder holds her own with a confident voice and controlled characterization. Ditto for Reese Levine as Colin. He’s funny, adorable, and has clear sweet vocals. Davis, as Archibald Craven, also masters his role and musical numbers with beautiful power, and Lyles commands the stage as Mary’s plucky new friend.

But it is Julia Lester (“High School Musical: The Musical: The TV Series”) that brings dramatic weight to her often funny role as Martha, the maid who ends up befriending Mary despite Mary’s initial protestations. She even has the best songs with, “If I Had a Fine White Horse” and “Hold On.”

The issues that I personally had with the show all concern the material itself. Musicals can be made or broken by their music, and despite the songs being pretty in the moment, there isn’t one I remembered after I left the theater. Our lead Mary is a bit of a little horror and is so for so much of the show that I found the character unlikeable while still finding the actress playing her very charming.

Then there is the brilliant Boggess, who plays a ghost that mostly floats around the stage, occasionally belting out a song until her final duet with her former husband. The problem with this is that someone like Boggess is wasted on a secondary role that has literally no character arc or momentum. She’s a ghost. I guess she needs to move on, but she’s really there to get Archie to move on. That’s great and all, but almost unnecessary with that kind of star power.

In the end, when the characters  (and the audience) need to feel a wave of delight after “all their hard work” to make the garden bloom again, I wondered why we never really saw the hard work. The friendship between the kids is never truly felt, and the adult characters are always off in their own dramas. Nothing seems to gel enough to give us that overwhelming moment of joy we should at the end of a musical.

That said, there are so many who love this theater piece that I will attest perhaps it just didn’t work for me. With the elegant production design and an out-of-this-world cast, there’s a lot to appreciate here for sure. I just wish the story was as magical as that paper ribbon wrapped around the stage.

“The Secret Garden: The Musical” runs through March 26th at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.
For information and tickets, visit

Additionally, CTG is celebrating LA Theatre Week, which will have tickets for more than 75 local productions available starting February 27th.
Visit for more details.

Written by
Kevin is a long-time movie buff with a wide variety of tastes and fixations in the film world. He cried the moment Benji appeared onscreen in “Benji,” and it took him about four times to finally watch “The Exorcist” (at age 24) without passing out. “Star Wars: A New Hope” was the movie that changed everything and when his obsession with films and filmmaking began. A screenwriter himself (one long-ago horror script sale to New Line remains on a shelf), his first film "Two Tickets to Paradise" that he co-wrote premiered in June 2022 on Hallmark. He is currently working on another for the iconic brand.

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