Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Secret Garden
Valley Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Fantasticks, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, The Scottsboro Boys and School of Rock

Vincent Pugliese, Morgan James, and Ryan Parker
Photo by Rebecca Novicki
Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 1911 children's novel, the musical The Secret Garden tells the moving story of how one young girl has an incredible impact on a houseful of adults in early 1900s England. Valley Youth Theatre presents a production full of beauty and emotion featuring a gifted cast, lush creative elements, and direction that features sensitive touches.

With an outstanding score full of soaring ballads by Lucy Simon and a Tony winning book and superb lyrics by Marsha Norman, the musical follows young Mary Lennox who, due to a cholera epidemic, finds herself an orphan in India. 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 mourning his wife Lily's passing ten years before. Archie's son Colin, a cousin Mary didn't even know she had, is bedridden 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. Through interactions and friendships with the people Mary meets at the estate, she 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.

Norman's book keeps the main plot from the novel but adds elements that help flesh out the characters and create tension. These changes, particularly the inclusion of the ghost of Lily as a main, always present character which helps us see the love Archie had for her, turn the children's novel into a musical with themes that adults can relate to. Simon's score features a wide range of song styles that effectively capture the emotion and large scope of the story.

Director Bobb Cooper does very good work here. This is a full length Broadway show with a large cast and numerous scenes, yet even though the cast and the majority of the crew are teenagers or younger, the show moves quickly and the actors all do a fairly good job portraying the changes and growth their characters experience. They also all have very good singing voices, and this is a show that requires some superb vocal abilities. Cooper has clearly worked closely with his cast so they fully understand the breadth of their characters and the story. He also finds interesting ways to incorporate the many ghostly characters in the show that haunt Archie's mansion. My favorites are the use of see-through scrims for some of the walls of the house that the ghosts are often seen behind, echo effects for their voices, and the use of shadows in the lighting design, which all give a great impression of a house haunted by spirits. The only fault I could find in the direction relates to the few humorous moments in Norman's script. These bits add levity to the more somber tone of the show, but this cast doesn't always quite deliver on the comedy these moments require, often rushing the lines so the laughs don't land. But that is a very small complaint for a production and a cast that is very good.

Ryan Parker accurately portrays Mary at first as a self-absorbed, sour-faced girl yet we also see the curiosity and excitement she feels when she uncovers the secrets within Archie's mansion. She also has good facial gestures which help display the delight Mary experiences when she sees the positive impact she can have on others. Parker has clear diction with a fairly good English accent and a beautiful singing voice.

As Archie, Isaac Dowdle delivers a performance full of anguish and sensitivity. His distracted expressions and gestures superbly get across this man who is lost and haunted, and his rich singing voice delivers on Archie's many songs. Tatum Dial's Lily is full of love and charm and her lush, lilting voice achieves some exquisite sounds. Dial and Dowdle's voices blend together beautifully in their "How Could I Ever Know?" duet. Mark Muñoz's no-nonsense delivery makes for an authoritative Neville, though he doesn't make him into a complete villain, which is a nice change, and his duet with Dowdle of "Lily's Eyes" is a showstopper.

Mary develops friendships with her maid Martha, Martha's teenage brother Dickon, and the groundskeeper Ben, and Sarah Pansing, Vincent Pugliese, and Hunter Cuison all deliver loving portrayals of these charming and humorous individuals. Pansing's delivery of "Hold On" is forceful and full of emotion while Pugliese brings a touch of mischief to the energetic Dickon with a powerful delivery of his several songs. Cuison adds some fun moments of comedy as Ben. All three deliver appealing portrayals. Morgan James is quite good as Colin, who believes he is dying so is often nasty to Mary and the staff of the house. Like Parker, James is quite effective in showing the growth his character experiences throughout the story. In smaller parts, Lex Cobb is appropriately feisty as Mrs. Medlock, and Asher Sheppard and Gracie Doan are very good as Mary's parents, while Steven Enriquez and Lauren Ondrejka provide a deep sense of care for Mary as her two ghostly Indian friends.

VYT's creative aspects are quite impressive, with beautiful scrims full of large flowers and a two-story set with spiral staircases from scenic designer Geoffrey M. Eroe and several moving pieces that quickly and effectively portray the numerous locations in the story. Karol Cooper provides many exquisite costume designs while Bret Reese's lighting, with a number of gothic touches, is flawless. Music director Tristan Peterson-Steinert achieves some superb sounds from the large cast and 15-piece orchestra.

With a first rate cast with exceptional voices that truly allow Simon's score and Norman's lyrics and dialogue to soar, VYT's production of The Secret Garden is a rich and rewarding emotional journey.

The Secret Garden at Valley Youth Theatre runs through April 23rd, 2017. The theatre is located at 525 North First Street in downtown Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling 602 253-8188.

Director/Choreographer: Bobb Cooper
Music Director: Tristan Peterson-Steinert
Scenic Designer: Geoffrey M. Eroe
Costume Designer: Karol Cooper
Lighting Designer: Bret Reese
Sound Design: Tom Holmberg
Production Stage Manager: Joycelin Jacobs

Mrs. Medlock: Lex Cobb
Ben: Hunter Cuison
Lily: Tatum Dial
Rose: Gracie Doan
Archie: Isaac Dowdle
Fakir: Steven Enriquez
Colin: Morgan James
Lieutenant Wright / Dreamer: Albert Johnston
Mrs. Winthrop / Dreamer: Taryn Landis
Alice / Dreamer: Stephanie Larson
Mrs. Shelley / Dreamer: Carley McClain
Dr. Craven: Mark Muñoz
Ayah: Lauren Ondrejka
Martha: Sarah Pansing
Mary: Ryan Parker
Lieutenant Shaw / Dreamer: Austin Porter
Dickon: Vincent Pugliese
Jane / Dreamer: Kendra Richards
Claire Holmes / Dreamer: Terese Sanchez
Major Shelley / Dreamer: Riley Schor
Albert: Asher Sheppard
Major Holmes / Dreamer: Charlie Siegel
Children's Chorus: Collin Gillaspy, Brooke Gillaspy. Vivian Nichols

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