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BWW Review: THE SECRET GARDEN enchants at The EmilyAnn Theatre

Left to right: Bergyn Collie, Trinity Johnston, and Derek Smootz
Photo by Mary Rath

Nestled away in the hills of Wimberely, the EmilyAnn Theatre is its own kind of secret garden. Standing as a lasting tribute to the memory of Emily Ann Rolling, this landmark of the community has been fulfilling its mission of "Reinvesting in the human spirit through the performing arts" since 1998. An idea born out of tragedy, the EmilyAnn Theatre has flourished and become a place of acceptance and arts education. Theatrical productions, workshops, and classes give local aspiring actors the opportunity to nurture their artistic needs.

Their latest production, THE SECRET GARDEN, is a musical based on the best-selling children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, THE SECRET GARDEN opened on Broadway in 1991 and ran for a total of 709 performances. The show garnered positive reviews and three Tony awards, including Best Featured Actress for the show's young star, Daisy Eagan. It has enjoyed several revival productions in recent history with the newest opening in Toronto later this year.

The plot remains mostly true to Burnett's original story. Mary Lennox (Trinity Johnston), a spoiled young girl raised in the British Raj, is orphaned by a Cholera outbreak. She is sent from India to Yorkshire, England to live with her only uncle, Archibald (Derek Smootz) who lives consumed by the tragic loss of his wife, Lily (Rebecca Smootz). Mary is left alone in the large manor but is encouraged by her maid, Martha (Bergyn Collie) to explore the grounds. There she meets Dickon (James Pearce) and Ben (Luke Jenkins) who tell her of her Aunt Lily's garden that was locked away and lost after her death. Eventually, Mary discovers the garden and her bedridden cousin, Colin, much to the dismay of his physician and Archibald's brother, Neville (Joseph Urick). With the help of her new friends, Mary begins to restore the forgotten garden and in the process learns how to be happy again.

Set in the EmilyAnn's intimate Studio Theatre, audiences are treated to close-up performances by the seventeen-member cast. Each individual voice can be heard as they come together to create the musical's intricate harmonies. Trinity Johnston, as Mary Lennox, guides audience members through her character's growth during the two-act musical with maturity beyond her young years. From sullen and unpleasant to compassionate and gentle, experiencing Mary's journey is an intrinsic component to the show's progression. Real life married couple Derek and Rebecca Smootz are affecting and poignant as Archibald Craven and the lingering spirit of Lily. Their moving duet "How Could I Ever Know," near the end of act two is the beautiful culmination of the pair's bittersweet love story. As Archibald's embittered brother, Neville, Joseph Urick shines with the intense clarity of a highly accomplished stage actor. Controlling and commanding in his role, Urick is the perfect antagonist to the production's young heroine. Bergyn Collie and James Pearce are completely delightful as the brother/sister duo, Martha and Dickon, who help Mary discover and restore the garden. Collie's soaring renditions of "Fine White Horse," and "Hold On," leaves little doubt of the young actor's talent and fiery promise. Pearce also exhibits the same impressive strength in his vocal performances during songs such as, "Winter's On The Wing." He and Miss Johnston's skills as performers were on full display when the theatre's sound system abruptly stopped working during their duet, "Wick." The actors, never missing a note, continued with the performance acapella.

Unfortunately, in the case of a few roles, it seemed that actors were miscast vocally. While it is apparent that all cast members are talented, the strain of singing out of range can be heard on multiple occasions. Inconsistencies in makeup and costuming also prove to be distracting with some actors nearly bare faced and others in full stage makeup. Being in such close proximity to the audience renders the effects of makeup techniques used in much larger venues unnecessary. This fact also makes proper fitting and period appropriate costuming essential.

Director, Bridget Farias Gates has taken on the mammoth task of scaling a full Broadway-style production to fit within the constraints of a black box studio theatre. Gates successfully utilizes the intimate space with concise staging and simplified prop and set pieces. Painting and lighting design by Chris McKnight gives the audience member the feeling of entering an English garden, enhancing the magical quality of the show.

Overall, THE SECRET GARDEN is an enchanting story perfect for families with children of all ages. With themes of love and redemption, the production makes for an excellent addition to Valentine's Day weekend plans. The EmilyAnn Theatre deserves to be commended for their many years of devoted service to their community through the performing arts. Much like Mary's garden, the EmilyAnn stands as a testament to the healing power of love and enduring hope of the human spirit.

THE SECRET GARDEN is now playing at the EmilyAnn Theatre and Gardens (1101 FM 2325, Wimberley, Texas 78676) until February 26th. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

Regular Ticket: $15.00
10 or more Regular Tickets: $12.00 ea.
Student Ticket: $10.00

For more information on the EmilyAnn Theatre, tickets, and classes, visit www.EmilyAnn.org



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