First the good news about ‘‘The Secret Garden’’ at Fountain Hills Community Theater: It’s a great little production of a great big show.
Judging from Friday’s wildly enthusiastic openingnight crowd, tickets will be hard to come by. I’ll bet my first-born child that ‘‘Secret Garden’s’’ first-nighters are still telling everyone they see to go see Lucy Simon (Carly’s sis) and Marsha Norman’s musicalization of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic. And well they should.
It can’t be easy staging ‘‘The Secret Garden’’ in a small space, what with its locales in India, England and a huge secret garden. What’s more, its poor director has to keep an army of ‘‘ghosts’’ swirling on and off stage without confusing playgoers as to who’s alive and who’s dead.
But Greg Jaye surmounts most all the challenges innate to this 1991 Broadway hit. His eye and ear are so on target, his good work will surely satisfy Burnett’s fans, while making new ones out of those unfamiliar with the tale of Mary Lennox, a British lass who’s sent to live with a widowed uncle after her parents die in India.
The secret to ‘‘Secret Garden’s’’ success is a preteen lead who can sing, act, dance, throw tantrums and not tire out after two and half hours on stage. What’s more, she must be likable while being more than a bit bratty. Jaye has all this and more in Kendall Gaveck. She breathes genuine life into Mary, filling her with all the complexities of a grief-stricken girl starting a new life. That this 11-year-old can hold her own vocally with veteran performers only adds to her crowd-pleasing appeal.
But Jaye doesn’t leave Gaveck to go it alone. He surrounds her with seasoned pros that undergird her knowing performance. As Mary’s bereaved unc, Jason Lee Mac-Donald is the perfect melancholy counterpart to Mary’s bundle of energy. He’s vocally in top form, whether on the tender ‘‘A Bit of Earth’’ or the sunny ‘‘Race You to the Top of the Morning.’’
On ‘‘Lily’s Eyes,’’ one of the most stirring ballads ever written for the stage, Mac-Donald and Brian Sweis (as Mary’s greedy uncle-in-law) join forces for a duet that never fails to bring on the tears. Tender tears also flow each time Janine Smith caresses the haunting melody out of ‘‘Come to My Garden.’’ She’s Mary’s deceased aunt whose long-dead secret garden is revived by Mary.
Outstanding work is also offered by Katie Williams-Ivie as Mary’s maid. Her ‘‘Hold On’’ ranks as a go-for-it command on the order of ‘‘Climb Every Mountain." As the manor’s free spirit, Tyler Service had enraptured playgoers in the palm of his hand on ‘‘Winter’s On the Wing’’ and ‘‘Wick.’’
Save for a few shaky ensemble voices, Jaye gets strong work from everyone. That includes Brennan Hillard, as Mary’s spoiled-rotten cuz. This 12-year-old is the most believable boy I’ve seen in a role that all too often is played one -note. As the gardener, Todd Carrie carries his brief spot in the spot light on ‘‘It’s a Maze.’’ Amy Powers and Scott Schmelder make the most of their brief appearances as Mary’s doomed parents.
Noel Irick’s seamless choreography gives the dense material much-needed lightness. She even manages to keep the constantly moving actors from crowding each other on the theater’s new stage, which is still small, despite being twice as large as the former space. Musical director Flora Mogerman does her usual ace job of underscoring vocalists’ strong points while covering their weaknesses.
Having seen ‘‘Secret Garden’’ equally well done last month at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, I have been twice reminded of the durability of this family musical. Its music is so rich, it attracts the best musical theater voices. With such talents in hand, all the directors have to do is nurture them and let them blossom in the lush melodies and heartfelt lyrics that enrich ‘‘Secret Garden’’ from start to finish.