Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Secret Garden
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 his wife Lily's passing ten years previous. Archibald keeps himself isolated and often makes trips to London and Paris to get away from the house and the memories of Lily that still haunt him. His son Colin, a cousin Mary didn't even know she had, is bedridden and under the care of Archibald'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 Mary's teenage brother Dickon. Through Dickon and the groundskeeper Ben, Mary also 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 won a Tony Award for her book, and it's easy to see why, as, while the main plot of the musical is the same as the novel, many elements have been added by Norman to flesh out the characters and their relationships with each other, and to swiftly move the action of the story along. The expansion of the relationship between Archibald and Neville and the inclusion of the ghost of Lily (she wasn't present in the novel) creates tension, somewhat of a love triangle, and paints Neville as the main antagonist of the piece, allowing us to see the love that Archibald had, and still has, for Lily. The characters are all realistic, and Norman's book adds a nice amount of humor and provides a rich, emotional connection for the audience to experience the journey that Mary takes. Lucy Simon (pop singer Carly Simon's older sister) composed music that very effectively captures the emotion and breadth of the story. It features a wide range of song styles, including major ballads and duets, folk songs and chants, a waltz, huge ensemble pieces and quiet solos.
Arizona Broadway Theatre has assembled a stellar cast, all with exceptional voices that allow Simon's score and Norman's lyrics to soar. Madeline Alfano brings a superb level of understanding to her portrayal of Mary. She is able to effortlessly capture the personal journey that her character makes from the sour faced, self-centered young girl to someone who feels joy in seeing the impact she has on others. Alfano isn't overly expressive, which is exactly the way Mary should be portrayed, but she does instill Mary with a keen sense of wonder and curiosity that allows us to better understand Mary's delight in discovering the hidden secrets of this large English mansion. She also has a lovely singing voice and a crisp and consistent English accent.
Matthew Charles Thompson is appropriately sullen and haunted as Archibald Craven. He brings a deep sense of anguish to the part along with a perfect sensitive connection and clear understanding of his songs. His rendition of "A Bit of Earth" is stirring with an emotional resonance. Kaitlynn Kleinman is exquisite as Lily, giving her a nice amount of charm and a loving nature which she instills in her connections with Archibald, Colin and Mary. Her singing is sublime with a voice that soars throughout her songs. The duet she has with Thompson, "How Could I Ever Know?," is sung in a simple way in front of the proscenium scrim with no added theatrical touches, yet is pure and direct with an impactful and passionate payoff.
Jesse Berger adds a nice level of complexity to Neville, more so than what I've seen in previous productions of this show, which provides new layers for the part, making him less of a caricature villain and actually allowing you to feel some compassion for him. Berger also brings an amazingly clear, powerful voice to the many songs he sings, and the duet he has with Thompson, "Lily's Eyes," is thrilling.
Trisha Hart Ditsworth adds a nice level of humor and charm to the role of Mary's chambermaid Martha. This is the fourth show I've seen Ditsworth in this season, the third at ABT, and she always is great. While her singing voice is always forceful and excellent, there may have been an issue with her microphone or the sound levels on opening night, as her singing unfortunately came across as too loud and a bit shrill. I'm hopeful this issue can easily be remedied. Jordan Wolfe is energetic, appealing and charming as Dickon, but also instills the character with a wink of mischievousness. Like everyone else in the cast, his singing is rich and expressive. Christian Bader's Colin is appropriately demanding and nasty yet somewhat scared, believing he is on the verge of death, and the scenes he has with Alfano are nicely done.
In the supporting ensemble cast I especially liked Tony Blosser as Ben, the gardener. Blosser excelled as "Tevye" in the Desert Stages production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this season, and it's nice to see a similar level of care, attention and sensitivity brought to this role. Matthew Curtis and Kathleen Berger are perfect as Mary's parents. Berger excels in the "Quartet" she sings with Kleinman, Thompson and Berger (her actual brother) and Curtis's vocals are exceptionally pure and touching, especially in the "Bit of Earth" reprise he has in the second act.
Director Andy Meyers brings a sensitive touch to the show. He makes sure that the few comical moments land but never get in the way of the emotional story at the core of the musical. This is a show with a large ensemble cast, mostly made up of "ghosts" that haunt the central characters, and he continually and effectively uses them in creative ways. He also provides some nicely done choreographed stage movement in the numerous large ensemble songs. Creative aspects are impressive with a multi-level set design by Charles J. Trieloff II that easily serves as various rooms in the mansion as well as several flashback scenes in India. Kelsey Ettman's costume designs are impeccable and include some exquisitely beaded dressesLily and Rose's are both knock-outsas well as period perfect outfits for the staff at the mansion and some nicely designed dresses for Mary. William C. Kirkham's lighting design is awash in a multitude of colors, from rich, dark tones of purples and reds for the interior mansion scenes, to warm browns for the outside scenes. He also uses shadows to create a moody atmosphere.
When done right, The Secret Garden blossoms into a superb musical, full of realistic characters and an excellent score with many stand out songs. The Arizona Broadway Theatre's production is a rich and effective emotional experience. With the perfect combination of a superb cast, impeccable direction and impressive creative elements, it is a must see.
The Secret Garden runs through May 11, 2014, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at azbroadway.org or by calling (623) 776 8400.
Stage Direction: Andy Meyers
Cast: (the parts of Mary and Colin are triple cast, and the actors listed below played those parts at the opening night production)