Good Theater but One is Sublime

By Sarah Spitz

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Good Theater but One is Sublime
The cast of “The Secret Garden” in the revival production of The Secret Garden at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre through March 26, 2023.
Sublime is the only word I can use to describe the revival of the beloved musical, The Secret Garden onstage now through March 26 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Blessedly, the children in two leading roles are not saccharine sweet, precocious little musical stars. Their characters are stubborn, impetuous, imperious and convincingly delightful and these serious young actors allow the depth and profundity of this beautiful story to shine. The Secret Garden is about damaged people who find redemption through reawakening themselves to life and love. The original Broadway darling and Tony winner for choreography, has been sensitively updated, telling the story of Mary Lennox (Emily Jewel Hoder), tragically orphaned by cholera in India, who’s sent to her only living relative in England, an emotionally stunted uncle who was married to her mother’s sister. Archibald Craven (Derrick Davis) has been mourning the death of wife Lily (Sierra Boggess) for ten years, haunted by her spirit and overwhelming memories of their love. She died in childbirth, and their son, Colin (William Foon), who has been hidden in an out-of-the-way bedroom by Archibald’s brother, Dr. Trevor Craven (Aaron Lazar), who’s treating him for an unknown ailment—perhaps invented—from which Colin has been led to believe he will die. Trevor was secretly in love with Lily, and there may be an ulterior motive in keeping Colin out of sight. Lily’s beloved garden has been locked up and neglected because it’s where she was caught in the storm that caused her death. Mary, a stubborn, self-possessed child ignores the rules of the house and seeks not only to find and enter the garden, but upon discovering Colin, to restore him to life. She engages with Dickon (John-Michael Lyles), the wild child brother of Martha (Julia Lester), the caring housemaid and her accomplice, to find the key to Lily’s garden gate. The staging is so inventive, and the singing so brilliant that I teared up more than once. When Archibald sings “Lily’s Eyes,” (Mary has Lily’s hazel-colored eyes), I wept openly. These are not merely actors playing characters on a stage. I felt their pain, I understood their heartbreak. It’s an impressionistic staging, with a massive vine or wooden stem spiraling from floor to ceiling takes center stage and changes with the lighting to become a staircase, a twisted overgrown rose bush, or a bolt of lightning; Lily’s flowing chiffon gown wafts ghostlike around her (her voice is ethereally crystalline); there’s sultry choreography of the cholera figure (Kelly Dorney) in a henna-patterned body suit who wraps her red scarf around the necks of those whom she afflicts; drop-down backgrounds cleverly create the interior of the house… all of it combines for a flawless production. I hope it’s bound for Broadway with this very cast. I’m giving the other two plays I saw this week an A for effort, but less enthusiasm for the results. Picasso at the Lapin Agile Comedian / actor / intellectual and art collector Steve Martin wrote Picasso at the Lapin Agile, an absurdist comedy about an imaginary meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, just before Picasso breaks the art world open with cubism and Einstein upends physics with his theory of relativity. It’s onstage at thatthe small but mighty Ruskin Group Theatre at Santa Monica Airport, making the most of its space with a terrific stage set. I didn’t know Santa Monica restaurateur and philanthropist Fred Deni (Back on Broadway, Back at the Beach) had been a professional actor on and off Broadway. Here he plays Gaston, a habitué of The Lapin Agile, the (actual) renowned cabaret in Montmartre where the action takes place. Einstein (Ryan Stiffelman) is waiting for his date and Suzanne (Ashley Barrett in multiple roles) is hoping to reconnect with passionate Picasso (Isaac Cruz). Sadly, I don’t think the uneven ensemble cast holds together sufficiently to put across the “wild and crazy ideas” at work in the play. Cardenio Lastly, Cardenio at the always-admirable City Garage (at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Art Station) is a play within a play, about an (actual) lost play of Shakespeare’s whose authenticity has been argued over by scholars since the 1600s. The story starts with a similar plot as the play, a wedding at which the husband wishes to test the fidelity of his bride by asking his best friend to seduce her. Mayhem ensues. In this version, by Charles Mee and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the plot twists turn slapstick, with high-speed soliloquys, jealousy, mismatched couples and an interfering actress mom who complicates things by planning to present the lost play as a wedding gift to her son. Does it succeed? I had a hard time focusing on the play due to one very loud laugher in the audience, whose braying (often at inappropriate moments) and distracted me from the action on the stage. The energy is high, the creative—if slightly unbalanced script—and hardworking cast give it their all to create, once again, a unique City Garage theatrical experience. Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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March 17, 2023