Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center

A hauntingly beautiful and brilliantly sung production of the classic musical through May 7th

By: May. 06, 2023
Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center
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Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center There are some musical theatre scores that burrow themselves into your subconscious and stay with you long after the first listen or the first time experiencing a show in a darkened theatre. For me, Lucy Simon's score for THE SECRET GARDEN is one of those that has permanent real estate in my head ever since I first listened to the cast album 32 years ago . Maybe it's Ms. Simon's soaring, beautiful melodies or Marsha Norman's poetic and poignant lyrics (and book) but THE SECRET GARDEN is, vocally, as luscious and verdant as the garden that features prominently in the play. It is a perfect vehicle, then, for a company with "Vocal Arts" in its name - and in Central Florida Vocal Arts' (CFVA) production, now playing through May 7th at the Dr. Phillips Center, the music takes center stage and is allowed to blossom into something truly magical.

Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, THE SECRET GARDEN, follows the story of ten-year-old Mary Lennox (Abby Yuska) who travels from India to North Yorkshire, England to live with her brooding uncle Archibald Craven (Sahid Pabon) upon the death of her parents due to a cholera outbreak. Mary soon finds herself roaming the haunted halls and gardens of Misselthwaite Manor, meeting the residents of the secluded "House Upon the Hill" including housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Rachel Hunter), chambermaid Martha (Justine Grace Nelson), gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Jacob Pence) and Martha's mystical brother, Dickon (Edwin Perez). But in her exploration of her new home, Mary soon discovers bedridden young Colin Craven (Axel Rimmele), Archibald's son who has been kept secluded and in bed since birth by Archie's brother, Dr. Neville Craven (Evan Snead) in fear that Colin may become a hunchback like his father. Along the way, Mary learns the joy that tending a garden and helping life to flourish can bring and sets herself the task of helping heal Colin - all within the magical walls of Colin's late mother Lily's (Alexis Smith) garden. In doing so, Mary finds healing herself and helps bring life and light back into the lives of her new family and friends.

Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center As noted above, I have long felt that THE SECRET GARDEN is nearly perfect musically. Lucy Simon's numbers flow into each other so well, it can practically tell the story effectively without the book. Luckily, Marsha Norman's book is equally effective, conveying the essence of the original novel into a tight script. CFVA's production brings this score and this story to vivid life on stage - focusing most on the performances themselves to take the audience along on the journey.

Stage Director Eric Pinder and Music Director Nishaa Johnson have struck gold with the casting of the leads in THE SECRET GARDEN and each bring out the best in the actors on stage. Mr. Pinder's direction is fluid and functional, keeping a strong pace throughout. Ms. Johnson's work, vocally, especially with the principal actors truly stands out - delivering hauntingly beautiful performances that soar.

Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center Speaking of the actors, the cast is an extremely talented bunch and when given a score like this one, have many moments to shine. The ensemble of "ghosts" layer in commentary and context for the story and serve as the chorus for many numbers. For the uninformed, the ghostliness of this particular group may not have been abundantly clear at first, but they do a fine job of keeping the story moving. What truly makes CFVA's THE SECRET GARDEN a moving musical experience are the performances by the lead actors. First, as young Mary, Abby Yuska blossoms from a stoic and "contrary" orphan to a thriving child. As her cousin Colin, Axel Rimmele gives a strong performance as the lonely and hurt young invalid desperate for someone to spend time with him. Evan Snead's Dr. Archibald Craven is haunted and conflicted and has a beautiful baritone voice that soars. Speaking of soaring, as Lily, Colin's ghostly mother who is ever present in the manor, Alexis Smith applies her crystal-clear soprano voice to deliver Lily's otherworldly vocal moments. Some of the finest and most emotionally moving moments of the evening belong to Justine Grace Nelson, Edwin Perez and Sahid Pabon as Martha, Dickon and Archibald, respectively. Ms. Nelson is a joy to watch every time she takes the stage, nailing Martha's complicated Yorkshire dialect and sunny disposition. But it is her delivery of the second act's "Hold On" that moved me to tears. As her brother, Dickon, Edwin Perez gives a natural and effortless performance and owns every moment he has on stage. It is impossible for your heart not to soar and a smile not to form every time he enters and waves his magic walking stick. But the most heart-wrenching and gloriously sung performance of the night goes to Sahid Pabon as the haunted Archibald. His delivery is subtle and subdued but with a pain and anguish under the surface that feels real and raw. Mr. Pabon's beautiful tenor voice is perfectly suited to Archie's songs and he too evoked many tears as he struggled on stage to reconcile his loss and loneliness.

Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center In terms of creative production, THE SECRET GARDEN focuses most of its attention on the performances on stage, but provides just the right amount of creative context to frame the story. Danielle Zoss' Costume & Hair and Makeup designs align with the 1906 period well, and Brady Davidson's lighting, scenic and set designs are basic, but function well to set the scene.

With THE SECRET GARDEN, Central Florida Vocal Arts delivers a classic and beloved story with an extremely talented cast who perform its beautiful score brilliantly - evoking a number of theatrical moments that will stay with me for a very long time. And whether you are already familiar with the musical, read the book as a child or just love lyrical and beautiful music, this production has something for everyone. However, it only runs two more performances (tonight at 8PM and tomorrow at 3PM) so don't miss your chance to experience the beauty of THE SECRET GARDEN for yourself.

Review: THE SECRET GARDEN by Central Florida Vocal Arts at Dr. Phillips Center

THE SECRET GARDEN, presented by Central Florida Vocal Arts runs Saturday, May 6th at 8:00 PM and Sunday, May 7th at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $35 - $45. Performances take place at The Alexis and Jim Pugh Theatre of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Avenue, Orlando, Florida 32801. Tickets can be purchased by visiting

All Photos courtesy of Gontran Durocher and Ipso Photo.


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