VYT’s “The Secret Garden” returns to the Phoenix stage April 7-23

Valley Youth Theatre brings “The Secret Garden” to the stage April 7–23. Above are Tanner Smalley as Colin and Allie Starts as Mary Lennox from a 2005 VYT production.
Valley Youth Theatre brings “The Secret Garden” to its Phoenix stage April 7–23. Here Tanner Smalley is Colin and Allie Starts is Mary Lennox in a 2005 VYT production. Photo courtesy of Valley Youth Theatre.

With the help of some 25 creative young actors, a live orchestra, and a colorful set, “The Secret Garden,” a Tony-Award-winning musical, will come to life at Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix April 7–23.

The compelling tale of forgiveness and renewal tells the story of Mary Lennox, an English girl born and raised in India. Orphaned at a young age and sent to live in England, she joins Archibald Craven, her uncle, and his invalid son, Colin, on a great estate situated on the moors of Yorkshire. Saddened by the loss of his wife, her uncle has become a virtual hermit.

Not only are the mansion’s many rooms full of secrets, but the surrounding grounds have their own air of mystery. There, Mary discovers a hidden garden that beckons her. Though the garden is overgrown with vines, encompassed by walls and locked shut with a missing key, Mary finds a way in, bent on reviving the beauty it once had. With love and care, she begins to peel away the layers of sadness covering the garden and her new home, and somehow manages to bring new life to both.

ABC Family, Disney and Freeform star Chelsea Kane as Mary Lennon is VYT’s 2000 presentation of “The Secret Garden”
ABC Family, Disney and Freeform star Chelsea Kane as Mary Lennon is VYT’s 2000 presentation of “The Secret Garden.” Photo courtesy of Valley Youth Theatre.

Valley Youth Theatre has staged “Secret Garden” several times, and some of its actors have gone on to achieve a high measure of success. In 2000, ABC Family, Disney and Freeform star Chelsea Kane played Mary Lennox, and Broadway star Nick Cartell played Fakir. In 2005, award-winning actress Kimiko Glenn, known for her role in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” played Ayah.

Why stage it again?

“It’s one of my favorites,” says Bobb Cooper, who is directing the current production in addition to being VYT’s producing artistic director. He finds it a great opportunity to showcase the amazing talents of the young actors taking part.

Cooper recently had an experience not too many Valley theater people can boast. Emma Stone, winner of the 2017 Oscar for Best Actress for her role in “La La Land” and a VYT veteran, thanked him in her acceptance speech.

“It was quite overwhelming to be acknowledged on such a pivotal moment in her life,” he says, adding that it was  “quite extraordinary, quite an honor.”

When asked how he thinks knowing that former “Secret Garden” actors have become well-known names affects the current crop of actors, Cooper says, “I believe it inspires the young people to know that others have gone on to travel the boards on Broadway, television, film, recording. It gives them hope.”

He also believes it encourages them to “believe in yourself, make your dreams come true,” and to “work hard at it.”

One of the young actors finding such inspiration is 11-year-old Ryan Parker, who is making her second appearance for Valley Youth Theatre as Mary Lennox. A fifth-grader at Wildfire Elementary in Phoenix, Ryan was last seen in VYT’s “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail.” Other roles include Baby June in “Gypsy” for Scottsdale Musical Theater Company and Fluff in “Honk!” for Greasepaint.

Mary’s reclusive uncle Archibald is played by Isaac Dowdle, who previously was part of the ensemble in VYT’s presentation of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” at the Herberger and who also played the wolf and Cinderella’s prince in “Into the Woods” at Chandler High School, where he is a senior.

Making his VYT debut as Colin is Morgan James, a fourth-grader at Archway Classical Academy — Trivium West in Goodyear. The show, based on a classic 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is appropriate for all ages.

“‘Secret Garden’ is a beautiful musical that will appeal to almost everyone, not just young children,” says Cooper, who calls it “a gorgeous story.” Not only that, but “the talent is just off the charts,” he says.

If you go: April 7–23; 7 p.m. Friday, April 7; noon and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays; 12:30 and 4 p.m. Sundays. Valley Youth Theatre, 525 N. First St., Phoenix. $18 plus fees. 602-253-8188 or vyt.com.