Not too many stories have the legs of Frances Hodson Burnett’s 1911 novel, The Secret Garden. As a child you may have read it as a classic; or maybe you have read it to a child. The first movie adaptation was in 1914; there have been several more since. Television has had adaptations, and the current musical first hit the Broadway boards in 1991. Despite tepid reviews it was a roaring success: three Tonys, 700 performances. One criticism was that it was too long. Director Warren Carlyle took the criticism to heart in this Ahmanson production. He chopped twenty minutes off. I do not think they will be missed. Other more subtle changes were made. Carlyle is hoping this production will have legs of its own.
The British Raj was alive and flourishing in 1911 when Burnett wrote her book. Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder) is the child of a military captain and his society wife. Born in India, ten year old British Mary had never even visited England. She was raised by servants, spoiled and ignored by her parents. It is the midst of a cholera epidemic. Her parents are giving a glittering dinner party. She is shunted off to bed. All who attend promptly died. Orphaned Mary is sent off to Yorkshire, with her paperwork, to her only living relative, her uncle Archibald (Derrick Davis). Archibald has been swathed in grief since the death of his beautiful wife. According to the lyrics, Archibald was a hunch back. Strangely missing from his costume was any hint of deformity which made some of the story harder to follow. Archibald’s younger brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazar), has left his practice ostensibly to care for his grieving brother. Beware an ulterior motive.
Immediately upon arriving in the grand house Mary is confronted by the head housekeeper and admonished to stick to her own two rooms. NO wandering through corridors. NO going outside on the moors. STEER CLEAR of your uncle … he wants nothing to do with you. Mary may be spoiled but she is bright and she is curious. Yes, she obnoxiously expects the chamber maid, Martha (Julia Lester), to dress her; she had had her own servant in India and had never dressed herself, but she has her own sense of agency too. Like any healthy ten year old she begins to explore. Martha appears to be the only adult who has any sense of how to relate to a child and wends her way past Mary’s arrogant façade to become her real guardian and confidant. Mary is often described as obnoxious — yes she could spout off — but here is a kid who traveled alone from Bombay to Yorkshire. In 2023 the flight plus train ride would take about 13 hours. In 1911? Probably days if not weeks. Obnoxious or self-possessed? Emily Hoder’s portrayal of Mary is stunningly engaging. Many a young audience member would identify.
In her roaming she follows cries she hears in the night. Ghosts, perhaps? She finds bedridden ten year old Colin Craven (Reese Levine). Colin is fully her obnoxious match. Mary can handle him and she is hungry for company. So is he, though neither would admit it. Colin is Archibald’s son. He tells Mary he is dying because he is inflicted with the same problem hump his father has. Dr. Neville Craven (Aaron Lazare) is “treating” him and has ordered complete bed rest. It is a clear case of Munchhausen by proxy – an adult causing another (usually a child) to undergo frequent, drastic and unnecessary medical treatment for the adult’s personal reasons. In this case the doctor’s motivation is obvious: if this child dies Dr. Craven will be next in line to inherit the considerable estate.
Mary thirsts for outdoors; she has fantasies of a garden. She finds a mysterious, overgrown wall and a young man, Dickon (John-Michael Lyles), Martha’s brother. He is infused with the warmth of his sister and an inner spirit. Together they are able to enter through the locked and overgrown garden. It had been Archibald’s wife’s garden. When she died he had buried the key and forbade all to enter.
You can probably guess: in the end good things happen to good people with many twists, turns, and ghosts along the way. The unjust get their due. There is plenty to criticize, but before I do I must say that the children (Emily Jewel Hoder and Reese Levine) and chambermaid Martha (Julia Lester) give outstanding performances. Dickon (John-Michael Lyles) may have been a victim of the choreography and writing. He is an excellent sprite but did not connect at the same level as the other three.
I have not seen other productions of The Secret Garden, so I cannot be sure of how much of my reaction is due to current production and how much is just inherent to the story. The set is a semi abstraction. Not a bad idea as there would otherwise be endless scene changing. That is good. As it is there is too much of objects moving about. Some of what we see is bizarre. For example, a sweeping shimmering thingy that hangs there for the duration, and a semi orb thingy referred to varyingly as the sun or the moon but looking like a Disney designed asteroid. An excess of ghosts – you could tell they were ghosts as they were wearing white – wafted and danced through the set in quasi Victorian/Georgian gowns and uniforms. At the least, there is another opportunity to do some more cutting.
Lucy Simon’s score is much closer to Andrew Lloyd Weber than Stephen Sondheim or any of the other great composers of musicals. The operatic aspirations are more distracting than enriching, as is much of the insipid choreography. They do a cumbersome job of moving the story along.
Despite my serious concerns with the score and the production, I must admit I found myself misty eyed at the finale. The story has survived the test of time because it deals with both a fundamental fear of childhood, becoming an orphan. And a frequent childhood fantasy of overcoming the failings of adults and saving the day. This is a story that will probably strike a chord with many a child who will have little patience with my criticisms.