Anthony Frederickson as Colin, Caitlin Cohn as Mary in "The Secret Garden" at Center Stage
Anthony Frederickson as Colin, Caitlin Cohn as Mary in "The Secret Garden" at Center Stage (Richard Anderson)

The minute you declare a spot off-limits, a child will be determined to gain entry.

For more than a century, readers have enjoyed the story of one such young snooper, Mary Lennox, heroine of "The Secret Garden," a perennially popular children's book by American-English author Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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Various adaptations have been made of that book over the years. Screen versions started in the silent film days and continued through the television era. You can also enter the "Garden" through a couple of plays, an opera and a musical. The latter, which won some Tony Awards for its Broadway run in the early-1990s, is currently blossoming at Center Stage.

With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, this treatment of Burnett's tells the tale effectively enough, starting with the awful business of little Mary waking up at her home in India to learn that her parents and the servants have died of cholera. (Death is a constant topic in this musical, which, along with its length, may make it a challenge for younger theater-goers.)

The rather disagreeable, downright bratty girl is sent to a Yorkshire manor to live with her depressive, hunchbacked Uncle Archibald, whose sickly son, Colin, is kept out of sight in the house. In short order, Mary finds Colin, as well as a walled garden with a locked door, discoveries that eventually change everyone's lives and attitudes.

Oddly enough, the musical doesn't make the actual garden as big a deal, theatrically, as you might expect. And its possible visual impact is limited in this staging, designed by Narelle Sissons. Still, the point of that restricted patch of earth — it's where Archibald's late wife happily grew roses — and its metaphorical implications get underlined strongly enough.

Norman's concept of having a ghostly Greek chorus (Mary's parents and Indian servants, Archibald's wife, et al.) moving about during much of the show could have turned deadly. But for the most part, the presence of these extra figures provides a worthwhile dimension, made mostly unobtrusive here by the fluid, subtle guidance of director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge.

Simon's songs are on the derivative side, complete with the inevitable tip of the hat to Stephen Sondheim (Archibald's Act 2 solo sung to his sleeping son). And a few numbers, especially the opening and closing scenes, veer toward the treacly. That said, the music is more than serviceable and serves the plot neatly, helping to make the show a cohesive package.

What makes this "Secret Garden" sprout so vibrantly at Center Stage is the advance fertilization. (OK, I'll stop the horticultural allusions.) It's a co-production with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park featuring the same cast that performed the show there for a month earlier this season. The supple, polished actors are solidly into their roles, demonstrating genuine chemistry with each other from the get-go.

Caitlin Cohn has Mary's petulant side down pat and offers sufficient sentiment as needed to make the gentler moments, especially the finale, hit home.

Anthony Frederickson is an impressive Colin, revealing just how deeply the enforced isolation has affected the boy's behavior, but also how much tenderness and hope still simmer beneath the surface. Frederickson's face alone can be quite the expressive communicator. And, like Cohn, he handles the singing requirements confidently.

On the adult side of the ensemble, Kevin Earley conveys Archibald's morose nature tellingly, without making it too one-note. Except for some strain in the upper register during the score's more dramatic moments, Earley sings with a remarkably sweet tone and maintains elegant phrasing. (His vocal styling can't help but recall that of Mandy Patinkin, who performed the role on Broadway.)

Cameron Bartell does a charming, elfin turn as Dickon, the Yorkshire lad who befriends Mary and opens her eyes to nature's possibilities. Charlotte Maltby shines as a chirpy chambermaid. Dathan B. Williams enriches the role of the old gardener. Adam Monley manages to keep Dr. Craven, Archibald's brother, from being too much the stereotypical villain; he's an impressive singer, too.

The rest of the cast glides smoothly through the show, which is finely costumed (Leon Wiebers) and firmly supported by a small band of musicians that brings out a good deal of color in the score. The set, with its motif of book pages, is not terribly original, but it does the job. The amplification overdoes the job; such a fundamentally intimate work doesn't need so much volume.

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