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‘Secret Garden’ thrives on very grown-up themes

Sophie Thatcher stars Light OperWorks' producti'The Secret Garden.'

Sophie Thatcher stars in Light Opera Works' production of "The Secret Garden."

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◆ Through Jan. 1

◆ Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston

◆ Tickets, $32-$94

◆ (847) 920-5360;

Updated: December 29, 2011 7:19PM

Although it is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s early 20th century novel, long considered a classic of English children’s literature, and it places a 10-year-old orphan girl at the center of its story, “The Secret Garden,” the 1991 Broadway musical by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman is hardly a show for children.

This is a work that deals with the very adult themes of love and loss, death and grief, the ache of memory, the emotional crippling of children by their damaged parents or guardians, and the differences between Indian and English life during the British Empire. Of course it also is about rebirth — with the garden of the title its crucial metaphor— and that makes a key difference.

Simon’s quasi-operatic score — an ideal fit for the mission of Evanston’s Light Opera Works ­— is a lush beauty. And in its holiday season production by the company, featuring elegant direction and choreography by Stacey Flaster (one of several women who have emerged in recent years as major musical theater talents in this city), it is being beautifully sung and acted. The show’s complicated, slowly unfolding back story takes a while to fully blossom. And at Tuesday’s opening performance the large and splendid orchestra (under the direction of Roger L. Bingaman) sometimes made it difficult to hear some of the songs’ dense lyrics. But a better balance was achieved by the second act.

The story begins in India as Mary Lennox (a remarkably sophisticated performance by fifth grader Sophie Thatcher) is left orphaned when her parents succumb to a cholera epidemic. The girl is promptly shipped “home” to England, to be cared for at the death-and-secrets-ridden manor that belongs to her wealthy, hunchbacked Uncle Archibald Craven (a deftly haunted Nicholas Foster) — a man still in deep mourning for his beloved wife, Lily (the golden-voiced Brianna Borger). Lily died a decade earlier in childbirth, leaving behind Colin (an expert turn by young Matthew Schroeder), a frail young son. She also left a glorious rose garden that has since deteriorated.

Mary’s arrival changes many things. The girl herself is helped back to life by a spirited housemaid, Martha (the powerhouse-voiced Maggie Portman); by a crotchety chief gardener, Ben (the spot-on Jerry M. Miller); and by his young assistant, Dickon (the beguiling copper-haired Steve Peebles, who does a lovely job with the English folk-inspired “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Wick”). Mary spurs Colin back to health with her pure prickliness.

Flaster’s staging expertly captures the contrasts in Eastern and Western visions of magic and death. And this is complemented in the design work of Adam L. Veness (who has devised exquisite arborial sets), Darcy Elora Hofer (costumes) and Andrew Meyer (lighting).

NOTE: Light Opera’s 2012 season will feature: “Camelot” (starring Nick Sandys as King Arthur); “Man of La Mancha” (starring veteran Chicago actor James Harms); “Oliver!” and a program of “Operetta’s Greatest Hits.”

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