By Karen Billing
Cameron Lee-Bellows, a 13-year-old seventh grader at R. Roger Rowe School, is taking on one of the lead roles in the California Youth Conservancy’s production of “The Secret Garden, A Musical,” which will run March 1-15 at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre.
Although Cameron has done all of the RSF Players shows at Rowe and is a member of advanced drama, “The Secret Garden” is his first big regional theater experience.
The CYC production features a mix of adult professionals and some of San Diego’s most talented young performers. Director Shaun Evans said he was picky about his young cast as the show is so dear to him and the role of Colin so important, but he found Cameron to be the perfect choice. This is Evans’ third production of the show and he’s seen eight other versions, and he said Cameron is by far the best actor he’s ever seen in the role.
“I was shocked at how little experience he had outside of school projects given the quality of his audition and callback,” Evans said. “Although relatively inexperienced, Cameron has an exceptional gift as an actor and that’s coming from someone who’s surrounded by above-average young performers every day. His delivery is so natural and earnest, nothing like what you see in your average ‘children’s theatre’ show.”
The play tells the story of Mary Lennox, an orphan sent to live with her uncle Archibald in his Yorkshire home. Archibald is still grieving the loss of his wife, Lily, who died during childbirth and is further saddened by the condition of his ill son Colin, played by Cameron.
“He starts as a very bratty character, very selfish and anti-social,” Cameron said. “He grows up through Mary and learns how to respect other people and learns everything is not horrible and how little things can be a joy.”
The show is based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett but the musical is far more exciting, Evans said. Although CYC is a youth company, Evans said the show is not too cutesy and is not meant just for kids — he said it is sentimental and spans the emotional spectrum as it deals with themes of loss and grief.
“There’s a good reason why the majority of our patrons are just San Diego playgoers and not just friends and family of the participants. I’m very proud of that fact and it’s something basically unheard of in youth theater,” Evans said.
The company recently won a Bravo San Diego Best Musical award from the San Diego Performing Arts League for “Les Miserables,” an honor never before awarded to a youth company.
As the show is a musical, Cameron gets to show off his singing voice with solos. His mom, Karen, said he’s been singing since he was a baby but he started taking it seriously two years ago when he realized he wanted singing and acting to be his career. In addition to participating in choir, Cameron also works with a voice coach.
“Cameron has one of the most beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard from any child,” Evans said. “Even in rehearsals, he’ll sing one of Colin’s sweet songs from the show and I’ll walk into our studio’s waiting area and the parents sitting within ear-shot will be crying their eyes out. This kid is a real find.”
The rehearsal process for “The Secret Garden” has been intense over the last six weeks with three-hour rehearsals three times during the week and taking up most of Cameron’s Saturdays. Despite the packed schedule, Cameron said he is having fun and learning from everyone he works with.
“This is my first time working with adult actors and it’s not that different because we’re all in same community. But I’ve learned a lot from them when it comes to rehearsals, how to take care of your time,” Cameron said.
As the adults know how to manage their time splitting hours at work and on stage, Cameron also has picked up the challenge.
“I just like to keep everything organized and get my schoolwork finished and focus on rehearsals,” he said.
Cameron also plays violin, takes dance classes twice a week and during the last five summers has attended La Jolla Playhouse theater camp — all working toward his goal of being on Broadway one day.
“It’s his passion,” said his proud mom Karen.
For more information on “The Secret Garden,”visit cyctheatre.com