By Beki Pineda

THE SECRET GARDEN – Book and Lyrics by Marsha Norman; Music by Lucy Simon; Directed by Kelly Van Oosbree. Produced by Performance Now Theatre Company (Presented at Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood) through July 1. Tickets at 303/987-7845 or Lakewood.org.

Based on a favorite children’s book written in 1911 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, this musical version deviates just a little from the written version. The adult relationships are a little more complicated but realistic. Mary Lennox, an 11 year old girl, is the sole survivor of a cholera breakout in India where her parents were stationed. She is sent back to England to her only relative – Archibald Cravens, her mother Rose’s brother-in-law.  Rose’s sister Lily married Archibald but had died years ago in childbirth. Archie has isolated his son Colin and kept him in bed, fearing that he had inherited his father’s (barely noticeable) hunchback and ill health. Colin is cared for by Archie’s brother, Dr. Neville Craven, who harbors greed for the estate inherited by Archie and jealousy as he too loved Lily. Archie is a morose and gloomy man who still mourns his wife and visits his son only when he is asleep.

Mary, scarcely recovered from her own grief at losing her parents, walks into the middle of this complicated family muddle. She makes friends with Martha, a chamber maid; Dickon, the garden helper; and Ben, the gardener.  hey tell her of Lily’s secret garden locked away since her death; Mary determines to find it and bring it back to life. She does so with the assistance of “the dreamers” who are the characters in the story who have passed away, notably Lily, her sister Rose, Rose’s husband Albert, and the English society brought down in India. In finding a way to unite them all, she brings life back to the mansion and its inhabitants.

One of the things you can always count on in a musical directed by Kelly Van Oosbree is beautiful stage pictures that set the tone of the performance and illustrate without words who the characters are and where their story is going. This production is full of such beautifully staged and lit (thanks to Lighting Designer Vance McKenzie) moments – fleeting but memorable. The music is lovingly rendered by the nine piece orchestra led by Eric Weinstein, featuring the usual percussion and horns but also incorporating strings as well.

The set by Rob Prytherch is smooth and flexible, including movable shrubbery pieces that create an English maze and the dormant garden. The costumes by Ann Piano and Alie Holden feature the beautiful white lawn dresses and morning coats associated with this period in time. All combine to create a flawless portrait of the turn of the century India and England.

Through this portrait moves the stately and graceful tellers of the tale and singers of the songs. The luminous Carolyn Lohr sings the exquisite ballads given to Lily in a soprano unmatched. Her silent watching over Mary and her husband from behind the veil is touching.  Rose and Albert are given elegant life by Katie Jackson and Shane Delavan. Shaun McClellan as Dickon and Abby McInerney as Martha breathe energy into the proceedings as Mary’s first friends. Jackson Oliver Coleman as Colin is a 7th grade student with more strength and stage presence than many adult players. He will go far. This production also had an exceptionally strong 15 person ensemble that supported the soloists.

Special kudos must be given to young Mary played by Hazel Kachline with energy, spunk and an understanding of the role. For a young adult, she has the vocal cords of a trained 20-year-old. When she is sad, she is really sad and when she gets mad, she REALLY gets mad.

I see a lot of really good theatre. But every once and awhile, a moment is played out on stage that goes beyond what you expect and lifts you out of  yourself. One such moment occurred for me during the second act of this evening. Lily and Archibald share a duet – “How Could I Ever Know” – which laments their short time together. They start on opposite sides of the stage and Lily slowly makes her way to Archie until she is standing behind him. Archie knows she is there in spirit but when she slowly puts her arms around him from behind and holds him in her love, he truly feels her. The look on his face reflecting his wonder, grief, and joy all combined was one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in a theatre. Jeremy Rill, you broke my heart!!

A WOW factor of 10!!