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Review: THE SECRET GARDEN Mesmerizes Houston Audiences as Theatre Under The Stars' 49th Season Opener

Opening their 49th Season with the enchanting storybook tale THE SECRET GARDEN, Theatre Under the Stars has welcomed Dan Knechtges as Artistic Director to take over the season that predecessor Sheldon Epps put in place. The musical, directed and choreographed by 5th Avenue Theatre's Artistic Director David Armstrong, is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's fairytale classic and a book by Marsha Norman, infused with music by Lucy Simon. As part of a pre-Broadway co-production, this Tony Award winning musical will be undergoing refinements made by Armstrong and his creative team as the road to Broadway continues.

THE SECRET GARDEN follows the experience of a young girl who learns to light the way through darkness with her spirited temperament, headstrong and resilient mind, and hopeful heart as she navigates insurmountable loss. Set in the early 20th Century, young Mary Lennox must transition from her childhood home of the British Raj and live with her only viable guardian, her uncle Archibald in Yorkshire, England. Having lost all sense of a home, Mary finds herself yearning for a place to thrive and heal-a place her Uncle Archie could also benefit from: his long-lost love's secret garden.

Before the start of the show, Knechtges delivered an introduction that highlighted the meaning of THE SECRET GARDEN, given the current happenings at Theatre Under the Stars. The TUTS theatre family is currently mourning the recent loss of Founder Frank Young. Knechtges noted that the performance of central character, Mary Lennox, and her journey to heal from a magisterial loss comes at a timely moment as the Houston theatre community works to honor the timeless, invaluable gift Young gave to the Houston community.

Directed by David Armstrong, there were countless moments in THE SECRET GARDEN I wish I could have captured in my mind forever. The opening scene featured a picture-perfect moment of foreshadowing that was brilliantly designed by Anne Louizos, magically lit by Mike Baldassari, and sung with vocal perfection by Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven. Throughout the show, the concept of the ever-present and influential spirits was brought to life through mechanism of the dynamic garden and the seemingly animate house of Archibald.

Bea Corley as Mary Lennox and Charlotte Maltby
Photo Credit: Melissa Taylor

THE SECRET GARDEN comprised a vastly qualified, largely TUTS newcomer cast. I was curious to witness fresh faces and performances on the stage of Sarofim Hall, and this cast did not disappoint in the slightest. Twelve-year-old TUTS newcomer Bea Corley absolutely shined as Mary Lennox. She took hold of the stage with a powerful, resilient presence reminiscent of Roald Dahl's charming and rebellious character Matilda. With magnificent confidence and a voice to match, Corley was a crowd-favorite that played the instrumental Miss Mary with childlike charisma, vocal strength, and technical maturity.

Jeremy Kushnier as Archibald Craven pictured
with Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven.
Photo Credit: Melissa Taylor

Lizzie Klemperer glowed as deceased lover of Archie and Mary's aunt, Lily Craven. Klemperer portrayed Archie's deceased love and Mary's aunt, Lily Craven, with airy, ethereal grace. Her vocal performance was otherworldly and matched her picturesque, ghostly presence with perfection. An angel onstage and in the garden, Klemperer made her TUTS debut with refinement and brilliance.

Additional standout performances were delivered by Jeremy Kushnier (Archibald Craven), Julian Lammey (Colin Craven), Charlie Franklin (Dickon), and Charlotte Maltby (Martha). Kushnier acted with painful authenticity, demonstrating the internal torture one would expect from a character undergoing such circumstances. Haunted by the loss of his one love that left him behind with a crippled son Colin (Julian Lammey), the audience had the pleasure of watching Archibald's disturbed heart learn to welcome healing, growth, and acceptance through the presence of Mary. Kushnier displayed immense depth in his emotionally charged performance, especially in his song "A Bit of Earth" and a new song added for his character, "The Man in the Moon".

Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven shown with
Julian Lammey, Humphrey School of Musical
Theatre student, as Colin Craven.

Julian Lammey, a Humphrey School of Musical Theatre student, played Archie's son, Colin. He was a comical, childlike element of the show, bringing the audience the first glimmer of light in the dark as both his friendship with Mary and his own self-reliance progressed. Dickon (Charlie Franklin) was a joyful presence in the performance, with a charming personality and jubilant vocal abilities. Charlotte Maltby's character Martha provided the perfect sense of maternal care for Miss Mary, and displayed her tenderness in songs such as "Hold On" and "Letter Song".

Moreover, the story was permeated with the presence of all the lost souls of Mary and Archie's lives. The spirits of characters Lily Craven (Lizzie Klemperer), Rose (Brittany Baratz), Albert Lennox (Jason Forbach), Fakir (JohAnn George), Ayah (Anisha Nagarajan), and the ensemble members seemed to float about the stage with their ghostly white dressings, soft movements, and haunting influence throughout the story. TUTS' recent loss aligns with the recurring theme of the show, an idea that Archie articulated while explaining death to Mary: when someone passes away, they are not completely gone-their influence is always felt.

In addition to stellar performances, THE SECRET GARDEN displayed top-notch scenic, lighting, and costume designs that worked together to create the several contrasting worlds of the story. Scenic Designer, Anna Louizos, and Lighting Designer, Mike Baldassari, had the intricate challenge of not only creating both a magically decadent garden world, but also a dark, structurally stripped-down, disturbed household. Louizos designed entire worlds that could appear and disappear into the fly house seamlessly. I found myself watching the scenic transitions, attempting to figure out how the world of the stage could morph right before your eyes without you even noticing. The proscenium arch was decorated with twisting vines and greenery, providing a perfect frame for the performance. The costume design by Ann Hould-Ward was historically authentic when necessary, and noticeably complemented by Baldassari's lighting, giving the spirits their ghostly glows.

Photography credit: Melissa Taylor

THE SECRET GARDEN opened to Houston audiences on October 10th and will run through October 22nd. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. Student and Senior (60+) rush tickets are available in person at the Hobby Center Box Office starting one hour before curtain with valid ID. Rush tickets will be discounted 50% in price levels 2-5. Additionally, a TUTS Family Four Pack ticket purchase is available for $99. To purchase tickets, visit the Theatre Under the Stars website at or call the Box Office at 713.558.TUTS (8887). Email for more information on tickets and subscriptions.

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