Strong voices help ‘Secret Garden’ bloom | Review

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“The Secret Garden” gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run this weekend with a Central Florida Vocal Arts production that is lifted by key actors and strong voices.

Based on the 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the musical came to Broadway in 1991 and developed a fervent following, thanks in part to Lucy Simon’s memorable and haunting songs. They are the strongest part of the CFVA production, presented in the cozy Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando.

With small-scale staging, director Eric Pinder doesn’t always make it easy for newbies to instantly grasp who is alive and who is dead: “The Secret Garden” is very much a show about grief and memories and love that endures even when those we loved are gone.

The action starts in India, at the end of the 19th century, and young Mary Lenox is left an orphan after cholera kills her parents and many others who form the show’s chorus. Shadow puppetry adds an authentic and creative touch to the scene.

Mary is taken to the bleak moors of Northern England to live with her late mother’s sister’s husband — got that? Her blood-relation aunt, named Lily, has also died, leaving “Uncle Archie” grief-stricken and unable to care for Mary or his own bedridden son, Colin, who’s under the supervision of Archie’s brother, Neville, a doctor.

This is easier to follow than it sounds.

Mary soon becomes interested in an overgrown and locked garden that had belonged to Lily, as the plot’s metaphor for finding rebirth and new life after grief comes to the fore.

The simple staging hampers effects that usually add thrills and lean into the story’s melodrama: The ghosts only occasionally have special lighting, a sequence of violent thunderstorms suffers from only rudimentary effects.

That makes the story rely even more on the human elements, and here is where Pinder draws lovely moments from his actors — in particular, Edwin Perez and Justine Grace Nelson as Mary’s new friends, and most critically, Sahid Pabon as Archibald.

They beautifully combine their singing with fine acting, a feat that is less consistent among other cast members.

Pabon truly seems like a man lost as Archibald; his grief and bewilderment heartbreakingly palpable. And his clear tenor gorgeously fills songs like “A Bit of Earth” and “Race You to the Top of the Morning” with delicate poignancy. Pabon’s playbill biography says this is is local theatrical debut; I hope to see him on other stages very soon.

Perez, who shone in Valencia College’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” this year as a man facing death, blazes just as brightly here as a character that embodies life. His Dickon is filled with the warmth of the spring sun, and his voice radiates that same delightful warmth on “Wick.”

And Nelson seems completely natural as hopeful and spirited Martha, delivering her two big songs in rousing fashion but also signifying Martha’s determination and pluck in smaller moments.

As for the young stars, sixth-grader Abby Yuska has a lovely voice and is a less truculent Mary than others — a decision that makes a comic scene late in the show have better payoff than usual. Axel Rimmele, who has starred in shows at Orlando Repertory Theatre and Theater at St. Luke’s, brings his usual vocal prowess and charisma to Colin.

But although the show has children at its core, it’s the adults in the audience who are likely to be moved by the enduring message of “The Secret Garden.”

‘The Secret Garden’

  • Length: 2:40, including intermission

  • Where: Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave. in Orlando

  • When: Through May 7

  • Cost: $35 and up

  • Info: drphillipscenter.org

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