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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Secret Garden
Theater Works/ Youth Works
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Smartest Girl in the World and Almost, Maine


Macie Thompson, Noah McNeil and Nathan Sheppard
Photo by Moran Imaging
Theater Works' Youth Works is currently presenting a fantastic production of the musical The Secret Garden with a cast made up entirely of talented teenagers. Based on the classic 1911 children's novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden tells the story of a young girl and the impact she has on a houseful of adults in early 1900s England. With clear direction, a cast that does justice to the emotional breadth of the story, and just a few very small shortcomings, the end result is a touching, moving and rewarding production.

The musical follows young Mary Lennox as she finds herself an orphan in India, due to a cholera epidemic. She is quickly whisked away to her Uncle Archibald Craven's huge estate in the moors of England. But her Uncle Archie, whom she has never met, gives her little attention as he is still in mourning from his wife Lily's passing ten years ago. Archie keeps himself isolated and often makes trips to London and Paris to get away from the house and the memories of Lily. Archie's son Colin, a cousin Mary didn't know she had, is bed ridden and under the care of Archie's brother Dr. Neville, who also is in charge of the mansion and might just have other ulterior motives. Mary develops friendships with her maid Martha and Martha's teenage brother Dickon. Through Dickon and the groundskeeper Ben, Mary hears about a secret hidden garden that belonged to her Aunt Lily. Mary makes it her mission to find the garden and bring it, her Uncle and her cousin back to life.

The Secret Garden has an outstanding score by Lucy Simon that features a wide range of song styles and a well-honed book and superb lyrics by Marsha Norman. Norman won a Tony Award for her book, which adds to the main plot of the novel by fleshing out the characters and their relationships with each other. She has wisely incorporated the ghost of Lily to help show more clearly the love that Archie had, and still has, for her. Norman's book includes a nice amount of humor and provides a rich, emotional connection to allow the audience to experience the journey that Mary takes.

The Youth Works cast includes a trio of actors delivering lead performances on par with more experienced adult actors: Macie Thompson as Mary Lennox, Skyler Washburn as Archibald Craven, and Emily Benoit as Lily. Thompson is exceptional in portraying the sour, selfish girl who finds her purpose in life. She brings a vivid sense of realism to the role and has a lovely singing voice as well. Washburn is simply stunning as Archie, instilling the role with a deep sense of pain, sorrow and longing. His strong, earthy voice works well in making Archie's many songs have a deep connection to his emotional journey. Benoit's superb soprano voice makes Lily's songs soar and the duet she has with Washburn, "How Could I Ever Know?," is heartbreaking in its purity. The connection the two have is realistic and exceptionally moving.

In the supporting cast, Brandon Smith adds some complexity to the villainous Neville Craven with well-delivered mannerisms, while Noah McNeil is giving one of the best portrayals of the scared and demanding young Colin that I've seen, and I've seen about ten. As Martha and her brother Dickon, Camden Wawro and Nathan Sheppard are excellent. Both deliver impeccable Yorkshire accents (thanks to dialect coaches Diane Senffner and Julie Van Lith) and rich, honest performances full of humor and warmth. Kira Kadel and David Samson do good work as Mary's parents, with Kadel expertly portraying the selfish woman and Samson effective as the more caring parent. They also contribute nicely to their respective songs.

Chris Hamby's direction brings a perfect balance between the dramatic and the few comical moments, ensuring they all land effectively. And while the cast he has assembled are great in delivering the funnier lines, he never lets the humor get in the way of the sensitive and moving story that is at the heart of the show. Hamby's direction keeps the show moving forward at an effective pace and he creates some lovely scene pictures with his staging, using all areas of the expansive stage. The final image of Lily reaching out as she slowly leaves the stage is exceptional. The large ensemble cast includes many characters who have a tie to Mary or Archie, but are "ghosts" that haunt them, and Hamby incorporates them seamlessly and effectively throughout. However, while most of the leads have fairly good English accents, some of the ensemble don't even attempt one, which is a bit of a negative to the effectiveness of the show.

Ken Goodenberger's musical direction achieves some glorious harmonies and expertly delivered solo moments and, while there isn't a lot of choreography in the show, Paul Pedersen has crafted some effective movement. Tamara Treat's costumes are stunning and period perfect with fairly elaborate designs for the main characters and a lovely mixture of white patterns and fabrics for the ghosts who haunt the mansion. The scenery design by Michael Armstrong and lighting design from Tim Monson are both fine, though fairly simple, and work to effectively display the various locations, though some of the evening scenes are too brightly lit and the painting of Lily that is referred to several times in the show, but only seen at the very beginning of this production, is sorely missed. Matthew Sanders' sound design delivers crisp and clear vocals throughout.

The Secret Garden is a musical with a superb book and an excellent score that combine to tell an emotional story with realistic characters. The fact that a cast composed entirely of youth under the age of twenty are able to achieve such a moving production is a testament to Chris Hamby and Theater Works' superb company of talented Youth Works actors.

The Secret Garden runs through November 22nd, 2015, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623 815-7930.

Music by Lucy Simon
Book and lyrics by Marsha Norman
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Director: Chris Hamby
Music Director: Ken Goodenberger
Choreographer: Paul Pedersen
Stage Manager: Courtney Stevens
Scenic Design: Michael Armstrong
Costume Designer: Tamara Treat
Lighting Designer: Tim Monson
Sound Designer: Matthew Sanders
Dialect Coaching: Diane Senffner & Julie Van Lith

Cast:
Lily: Emily Benoit
Mary Lennox: Macie Thompson
Mrs. Medlock: Savannah Wilson
Dr. Neville Craven: Brandon Smith
Martha: Camden Wawro
Archibald Craven: Skyler Washburn
Ben Weatherstaff: Denim Glasheen
Dickon: Nathan Sheppard
Colin Craven: Noah McNeil
Mrs. Winthrop: Lilly LeBlanc
Major Shelly: AJ Palubinskas
Mrs. Shelly: Lilly LeBlanc
Rose Lennox: Kira Kadel
Captain Albert Lennox: David Samson
Alice: Quincy Janisse
Lieutenant Wright: Griffin LeBlanc
Lieutenant Shaw: Noah Washburn
Major Holmes: Houston Ortloff
Claire Holmes: Samantha Johnson
Fakir: Eddie Tellez Godinez
Ayah: Hahnna Christenson
Nurse: Lily LeBlanc
John: AJ Palubinskas

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix


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