Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Las Vegas

The Secret Garden
Signature Productions
Review by Mary LaFrance

Kelly Albright and Aron Shanley
Photo Courtesy of Signature Productions
What do you do with a musical whose main characters are mostly depressed or dead? Signature Productions rises to the challenge with The Secret Garden, the 1991 Broadway musical adapted from the 1911 children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story recounts the tale of Mary Lennox (played alternately by Emma Harmon and Isabella Baker), raised in India during the British Raj, but orphaned by her parents' sudden death from a 1906 cholera outbreak that wiped out their entire household, including the servants who were Mary's friends and caretakers. Mary is sent to live on the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald (Aron Shanley), still bereft ten years after the death of his beloved wife Lily (now a ghost, portrayed by the luminous Kelly Albright) only moments after she gave birth to their sickly and and now-belligerent son Colin (ably portrayed by Maxwell Claydon). Archibald's incapacitating melancholy has led him to lock away Lily's walled garden as well as their hapless son, who is confined to bed and kept sedated by Archibald's physician brother Neville (Cody Sims). Emotionally twisted by his unrequited love for Lily, the jealous Neville appears to have designs on the estate, and his medical ministrations may be calculated to hasten Colin's decline rather than aid his recovery. Mary—cantankerous and petulant upon arrival, but buoyed by natural curiosity and a powerful instinct for survival—throws a monkey wrench into this dysfunctional ménage.

A modest hit on Broadway, this stage adaptation of the novel is not wholly successful. Burnett's captivating story is rendered ponderous by Marsha Norman's Tony-winning yet heavy-handed book and lyrics, and by the somewhat repetitious almost-sung-through score by Lucy Simon that ranges from bland to pleasant; neither book nor score manages to scale any emotional heights. Nor is there enough story to justify the nearly two and one-half hour running time; while the musical would benefit from some judicious cutting (beginning with the bizarre and unnecessary spell-casting number "Come Spirit, Come Charm"), this option is probably unavailable to amateur licensees.

Signature's production soars, however, in its beautifully rendered vocals. Albright brings her ethereal soprano to the ghost of Lily. As the woeful Archibald, Shanley has vocal technique in spades. Unfortunately, his character's reluctance to connect with Mary and Colin—visible reminders of his lost love—is mirrored by his difficulty establishing an emotional connection with the audience. Shanley rises to the occasion, however, in "How Could I Ever Know," his haunting duet with Albright.

Bringing much needed relief from the story's prevailing lugubriousness are Cherity Harchis as the feisty servant Martha and Jordan Mazzocato as the ebullient young gardener Dickon. As the brother-and-sister pair who gently nudge Mary toward rejuvenation, these sly performers light up the stage with traditional musical-comedy stylings. The multi-talented Mazzocato has the makings of a young Christian Borle. Harchis's Martha is Yorkshire's answer to the Divine Miss M; she combines electrifying stage presence and spot-on timing with terrific vocals, canny restraint, and possibly the best diction in southern Nevada. In an evening packed with quality vocals, her solo "Hold On" is the closest thing to a showstopper.

Among other noteworthy performers, Cody Sims is a fine actor and singer who subtly yet powerfully conveys Neville's moral ambiguity. Jonathan Tuala and Amanda Campos, both excellent singers, convey grace and serenity as the ghosts of the Indian servants who join forces with their living counterparts Martha and Dickon to guide Mary on her spiritual journey. Young Isabella Baker, playing Mary at the reviewed performance, acquits herself like a pro. The strong ensemble plays multiple roles as a ghostly choir.

The scenic design (by Frank Strebel, Stan Judd and Leigh Cunningham) combines attractive ivy and flower-covered stone walls with landscape projections and just enough windows, furnishings, and flying picture frames to suggest a grand estate; the only off-note occurs late in act two, with Archibald and Lily's eleventh-hour duet—the show's emotional climax—performed against an inexplicably bare white scrim (a malfunctioning projection at this performance, perhaps?).

Director Leslie Fotheringham compensates for the show's length by maintaining a brisk pace, facilitated by miraculously swift and silent scene changes. Graceful and unfussy choreography by Teresa Isgriggs creates a ghostly atmosphere but keeps the story moving. Dennis Wright designed the sumptuous costumes. Erika Courtney's lighting design captures the mood, and the sound design by Steel Wallis and Noah Goddard ensures that even the youngest performers can be heard from the back of the house.

Sadly, in this city of entertainment, the show has no orchestra. While the recorded tracks are serviceable (and, thanks to musical director Shauna Oblad, the performers mesh flawlessly with the tracks), live music would give Simon's score a much-needed energy boost.

Promptly after curtain call, the cast repairs to the lobby for photos and conversation—an added delight for stagestruck children of all ages.

The Secret Garden continues through November 21, 2015, at the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center, 1771 Inner Circle Drive, Las Vegas. Performances are at 7:30 pm on November 4-7, 9-10, 12-14, and 17-21, with 2 pm matinees on November 7 and 14; the show is dark Nov. 8, 11, 15, and 16. Tickets ($30 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children 6-12 years) are available online at or by phone at 1-866-967-8167 (group discounts at 702-878-PLAY).

Lily: Kelly Albright
Mary Lennox: Emma Harmon/Isabella Baker
Fakir: Jonathan Tuala
Ayah: Amanda Campos
Rose: Jacqueline Walker
Albert Lennox: Brian Hardy
Alice: Kayla Hamblen
Lt. Wright: Adam Dunson
Lt. Shaw: Todd Thatcher
Maj. Holmes: Joshua Meltzer
Claire Holmes: Mary Beth Zentner
Maj. Shelley: Scot Brown
Mrs. Shelley: Stephanie Claydon
Archibald Craven: Aron Shanley
Neville Craven: Cody Sims
Mrs. Medlock: Leigh Cunningham
Martha: Cherity Harchis
Dickon: Jordan Mazzocato
Ben: Robert Langford
Colin Craven: Maxwell Claydon
William: Scot Brown
Mrs. Winthrop: Stephanie Claydon

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