Theater IV's "The Secret Garden" gets a child's thumbs-up. 

Child's Delight

Who best qualifies to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a children's play? A child, of course.

On a recent Tuesday night, I took Elina, my 11-year-old friend visiting from the Dominican Republic, to see Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at the Landmark Theater. It was Elina's very first play and she was duly impressed. Who wouldn't be?

Spectacular sets, special effects, dazzling costumes, beautiful music, talented performers were enough to enchant any child. When I invited her to another play the following Friday, Elina didn't think twice about saying yes.

This time, I had tickets to the opening night performance of "The Secret Garden" at Theatre IV's Empire Theatre. I explained to Elina that this play would most likely be very different from "Beauty and the Beast." In fact, I worried that the Theatre IV production, lacking the enormous budget of a Disney extravaganza, might be a big disappointment for my young friend.

I needn't have worried. The folks at Theatre IV know very well how to create their own magic kingdom. Elina was captivated by the production, as were all the children in the audience.

The classic children's story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, adapted for the stage by Pamela Strong tells the tale of Mary Lennox, an orphaned girl who goes to live with her dismal uncle at Misselthwaite Manor in the Yorkshire moors. She is the most "disagreeable-looking child ever seen." However, it is Mary's undaunted spirit that eventually revives her lonesome uncle, sickly cousin and the abandoned garden.

The set, special effects, costumes and music, while drastically different from the Disney show, were equally fascinating to my friend. "So pretty," Elina whispered every time the ingenious set revolved revealing the beautiful awakening of a long-neglected garden. Set designer Mercedes Schaum created a stunning ivy-covered stone wall, reflecting the mystery and intrigue of the secret garden. Designer Thomas W. Hammond's costumes and Amy Hruska's musical direction were lovely contributions to the show.

And the special effects, no, not the sensational pyrotechnics of a Disney show, but special in their own right: delicate lighting (by Steven Koehler) to evoke a mood; a backlit vignette of the uncle reading a letter aloft; the robin, a hand-held puppet commandeered by Jen Meharg, whose graceful dance to the wistful sounds of the flute depicted flight. Very special, indeed.

Under the direction of Susan Sanford, a talented cast of adults pulled their weight. However, it was the young actors in this production who captured the rapt attention of my friend and the audience. Gray Crenshaw as the charming Mary Lennox, Chase Kniffen as the hearty Dickon Sowerby and Nick Newman as the ailing Colin Craven each mastered their Yorkshire accents and exuded the joyful spirit of the show.

A glitzy Disney production, certainly not. "The Secret Garden" proved to be a delightful breath of fresh air and a show my friend Elina is still talking about. I would count that as a thumbs-up.

"The Secret Garden" continues through Feb. 17 at Theatre IV's Empire Theatre, $15-17. Call 344-8040


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