Garden of delights in Evanston

THEATER REVIEW: "The Secret Garden" at the Light Opera Works in Evanston ★★★

'The Secret Garden'

It has now been 20 years since Lucy Simon's gorgeous score for "The Secret Garden" — which you can hear beautifully sung this week at the Light Opera Works in Evanston — was first heard on Broadway. Simon, the older sister of pop star Carly Simon, wrote a suite of lovely, emotional, accessible numbers, ranging from the earthy hooks of "Wick" to the sweet "Race You to the Top of the Morning" to more complicated pieces like "Lily's Eyes," first sung by Mandy Patinkin. They are a family-friendly pleasure at any time of year.

"The Secret Garden" has never been revived on Broadway. It's overdue. And, sadly, Lucy Simon's music has never been heard on Broadway again (although her new musical version of "Doctor Zhivago" re-emerged this year in Australia, so that may change). But this musical version of the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett has remained a stalwart favorite of community and educational theaters. The current Light Opera Works production is a rare chance to see the warm show professionally performed with its original Broadway orchestrations, without any musical compromise. And once it finds its feet, Stacey Flaster's holiday-week production is a generally successful endeavor from a dramatic perspective.

Aside from the generally excellent singing from the likes of Nicholas Foster (who makes a heartfelt and aptly self-doubting Archibald Craven) and Brianna Borger (who plays the lost Lily), Flaster's fluid production has several strengths. These include an atypically ambitious Light Opera Works setting from Adam L. Veness that emphasizes the darkness of this story of a spunky young orphan (parentless kids being a perennial mainstay of such tales) who gets sent to a cold Yorkshire house where she discovers a locked-away section of the grounds that holds the key to her finding a family.

It also delivers a kid whose fate one becomes deeply invested in. She's not the star of the show; although Sophie Thatcher is a lovely singer and an exceptionally powerful on-stage presence with huge potential, she might work a little more on showing us a little more of her heart. The star is a young man named Matthew Schroeder, who plays the sickly Colin, and whose spirit and dynamism invests this show with energy and vitality from the moment he shows up in his bed, dying to head off to the garden. Thanks in no small part to Schroeder, the force of whose desire lifts the entire company, the emotional payoff is all we have come to expect from a show about courageous children who show lost adults how to deal with their pasts and embrace their gifts.

The bookwriter, Marsha Norman, penned a book that has real heart and that honors the source material while supporting girl-power more explicitly, although I've always thought that the choice to have the ensemble represent the ghosts of dead people from India (where Mary starts out) as distinct from the warm-blooded people of Yorkshire (where Mary moves) keeps dragging the show into the sepia-toned past a few too many times. It takes a while for Flaster's show to emerge from this ghostly root, but then that's invariably the case with this piece.

Once the show fires up, it's mostly very pleasurable. Granted, it's not a perfect show, nor is it optimally in sync emotionally: Borger's Lily is too cool and disconnected from everyone else, and Maggie Portman's Martha is overly broad and bustling for my tastes, although Portman, belatedly, finds an honest core when she totally nails the eleven-o-clock number, "Hold On."

But I bet your eyes will be moist when Colin and Mary catch glimpses of the garden that will save them, and Steve Peebles' likable Dicken and Jerry M. Miller's rock-solid Ben are very appealing throughout. The various sweeps of movement that Veness' design and Flaster's ambitious staging require had their shudders and lurches on Monday afternoon's opening, but this very well-meaning show surely delivers the most beautiful garden one could expect. There were gasps of pleasure in the audience, especially from the young.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

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