The Secret Garden – Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

There are several surprises in Valley Youth Theatre’s ambitious new production of the Broadway musical The Secret Garden. Perhaps the biggest surprise is it’s the unedited, 150 minute Broadway show, the kind usually reserved for the theatre’s end of season, full-blown musical, presented across town at the larger Herberger Center.

The musical with its theme of rejuvenation is based on the famous 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose other two novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess are considered English literary classics, yet it’s The Secret Garden that landed the Broadway treatment, and to much acclaim, nominated for seven Tonys and winning three, though not for its score.

Like A Little Princess, the youth at the center of the story is an English girl, just ten years-old, of wealthy, upper-class heritage, living in turn-of-the-century India. Unlike the earlier novel, The Secret Garden possesses a somber, sobering opening, and keeps that tone until the uplifting conclusion.

During the night, the girl’s parents and almost everyone she ever knew, have died of cholera. The ghosts of those already departed circle around her bed as Mary Lennox (Ryan Parker) sleeps. The white clad apparitions sing Opening Dream where lyricist Marsha Norman incorporates the lyrics to the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, asking the question, how does your garden grow? It’s a nod to the adventure soon to follow; plus those ghosts, referred to as Dreamers, remain with Mary throughout, commenting on the action and often used as a spiritual Greek Chorus. Because of this celestial ensemble who continue to appear, sometimes re-enacting a moment from the past, there’s an issue of clarity that might confuse some audience members. But once you realize that those looking down upon the scene are all spirits, including Mary’s Fakir (Steven Enriquez) and Ayah (Lauren Ondrejka), things should start to make sense.

Interestingly, once Mary moves across sea to her hunchback uncle’s gloomy mansion in Yorkshire, England, one that secretly harbors its own kind of sickness, even though the novel concentrated on the children of the story, the show actually develops the adult characters to more prominent positions. Relationships are changed, creating different conflicts and new subplots. With the adults now taking center stage as much as Mary and the little boy she hears crying in the night, Colin (Morgan James), another surprise of the production is how well director Bobb Cooper has cast the older characters. Often, a huge problem of any youth theatre production is having actors still in their teens pretending to be older with fake mustaches, heavy makeup and ill-fitting wigs – it always breaks the spell – yet here the illusion of Mary and Colin surrounded by an older generation works surprisingly well.

Much of this is in part due to Karol Cooper’s excellent costume designs, but also the fact that many of the adults are apparitions, clad in ghostly white, and lit by Bret G. Reese’s lighting design in a way that presents them in shadows, often half seen. Plus, they’re tall, and by sheer presence alone, always looking down on the age-appropriate younger characters, the appearance of everyone else being of a much older generation is nicely accomplished. There’s also the casting of the hunchback uncle, Archibald Craven, played by Isaac Doodle who convincingly portrays a sense of melancholy and grief; his brother Neville, Mark Munoz, who conveys a natural sense of authenticity way beyond his actual age; and Tatum Dial’s departed Lily, whose singing voice is literally haunting.

And it’s here, with the voices and an accomplished twelve-piece live orchestra, where the production soars. The ensemble is always strong, but so, too, is the show-stopping duet of Doodle and Munoz when they sing of Lily’s Eyes.

Fifth-grade actor, Ryan Parker’s early scenes as Mary are portrayed as mostly petulant and angry rather than fearful and lonely, and in danger of remaining one-note, but as the show progresses, Ryan’s real Mary emerges with a new sense of life, particularly in the playful scenes by the garden with Dickon as he teaches Mary a little Yorkshire dialect.

Morgan James as Colin in his early scenes is less convincing when believing he’s sick and bedridden, yet the stronger his character’s health becomes, the stronger the portrayal. When the two children first meet in Colin’s bedroom, it’s difficult to follow the dialog, there’s little change in inflection and it all seems to run together, but later, when both characters experience a fresher vitality, both Ryan and Morgan come alive. It’s not just a matter of the characters rejuvenating as the secret garden begins to bloom, the two young actors find a better footing in their portrayals.

There are also good turns from Lex Cobb as the stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, a keen sense of friendly warmth from Sarah Pansing as the young Yorkshire chambermaid, Martha, whose northern, country accent is something bewildering to Mary, and notably, Vincent Pugliese as Martha’s brother Dickon, whose continuing presence on the stage is all but assured.

In truth, there’s a certain lack of joyfulness during the final act that the cast can’t quite achieve, reducing the final reunion to something less than emotionally satisfying – everyone goes through the motions but it restrains what should be tearful tugs to the heart – plus the arrival of spring is void of those usual falling petals in an English country garden that add a sense of new color and visual magic to the season, though the growth of red roses and the newly bloomed flowers in Lily’s garden makes the overall conclusion a handsome theatrical design.

Which brings us back to the size and scope of a large, ambitious production like The Secret Garden usually performed by VYT across town, one that marks either the end or the beginning of a Valley Youth Theatre season. That’s not to say that VYT’s home-based smaller theatre is not an appropriate setting – it works perfectly fine, and much to its credit, the VYT stage is more than capable of handling such a large ensemble – it’s just that you can’t help but be curious and ask how better the emotions of the performers would have developed, how much grander the presentation would have been, and how much more alive that garden would have grown had its presentation occurred at the Herberger with VYT‘s usually elevated concentration of sparkling production values.

Pictures courtesy of Rebecca Nivicki

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