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Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Secret Garden at the Ahmanson, pre-Broadway (9/10)

The Secret Garden at the Ahmanson, pre-Broadway (9/10)


The Secret Garden at the Ahmanson, pre-Broadway (9/10)

by Tony Medley

One of the big problems with being a film critic is that “once a critic, always a critic.” So, when a critic goes to any entertainment, whether he’s on the job or not, he necessarily thinks like a critic, not a spectator. Ergo, my review.

I loved the musicals of my youth and young adulthood. So, I went to lots of stage productions. But when beautiful music was killed by rap and Bruce Springsteen (I can hear some screams now; so, for those Springsteen fans, I ask them to hum some of his unforgettable melodies…I’m still waiting), I stopped attending the theater. I think the last original production I saw was The Phantom of the Opera, which I saw innumerable times including the singing of the entire score by Michael Crawford and Dale Kristien at a BAFTA Ceremony in Los Angeles. But ‘Phantom’ isn’t anywhere near the best musical of my lifetime, a list that is headed by South Pacific. It’s just the requiem for beautiful music in the world.

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So, when my beautiful bridge partner, Dawn Lee, invited me to Opening Night of a new revival of the 1991 musical, The Secret Garden, at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, I was less than enthusiastic. However, since it gave me a chance to spend some time with Dawn (we’ve been playing online for months), I eagerly accepted. I figured it was worth enduring 2 ½ hours of what I anticipated to be a dreary play to be with Dawn again.

Dawn’s seats were second row center, which was a pleasant surprise, and the theater was sold out. The theater darkened and the play started. Although Lily (Sierra Boggess), the actress who opened, had a gorgeous voice, as I had anticipated the music was less than captivating, and it so continued throughout the play. But the singers were so good it made the music better. What terrific voices they all have!

After the opening number, the play started. And I was mesmerized. The acting was beyond superb. While Ms. Boggess is listed as the star, the little girl Mary (Emily Jewel Hoder) has all the lines. And for a 12-year-old, she does a respectable, admirable job.

But this play belongs to two players. One, John-Michael Styles, is stunningly charismatic and captivating. There aren’t enough words to describe how good his performance is. He is attractive, has a terrific smile, great timing, and expressions, and moves like a gymnast (reminiscent of Cary Grant). His performance must be seen to be appreciated.

The other is Julia Lester, who plays a chambermaid. She has a beautiful voice and wonderful timing. When one of these two is on the stage, it is simply electric. Tonys for both!

That said, presentism presents its ugly head. It is telegraphed in the Playbill where the pronouns of each player are identified. Ugh! Then there is Derrick Davis playing the male lead (Archibald Craven) and the widower of Lily. He is black and everyone else in the family is white, including his bedridden son. There is little chemistry between Archibald and Lily, and it is reflected in what is meant to be a romantic duet. Davis gives a fine performance, but this woke ideological casting shouldn’t trump entertainment values. This has nothing to do with racism because Davis has a beautiful voice, and he sings another duet with another man in the cast and both of their voices light up the theater bringing a thunderous ovation. There is just no logical reason to cast a mixed marriage that would have been highly unlikely in the time frame and circumstances of this story. Dawn, too, felt that there was little chemistry between Archibald and Lily in their one scene together.

That said, I don’t want to end this on a downer. This is superb entertainment even if the music isn’t that wonderful. You will rarely see better acting from an entire cast. I think John-Michael Styles is a superstar in the making. He, incidentally, is black, and he steals the show. Brilliantly directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, this should be a huge Tony winner when it reaches Broadway.

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Tony Medley is a columnist, and MPAA-accredited film critic His reviews are published in The Larchmont Chronicle, Telicom Magazine, The Tolucan Times, CWEB.com, robinhoodnews.com, on Rottentomatoes.com, the Movie Review Query Engine, and at www.tonymedley.com. Tony Medley holds the rank of Silver life Master, is an American Contract Bridge League Club Director, and has won regional and sectional titles. An attorney, he received his B.S. from UCLA, where he was sports editor of UCLA’s Daily Bruin, and his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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