THE SECRET GARDEN at Cocoa Village Playhouse


The Big Reveal.

That’s the plot-driven “ta da” moment in a show when something stunning happens. In “The Secret Garden,” it comes in the second act when a once-fallow garden springs to life.

It’s both a thematically and aesthetically rich moment. And as so, must be carefully considered when designing it.

Scenic designer Joseph Lark-Riley has done just that for his work on the musical “The Secret Garden,” running through March 25 at Cocoa Village Playhouse.

“It’s spring breaking through,” Lark-Riley said. “The idea is just to have color bursting everywhere.”

Ironically, to prepare for that moment, he has to create another world, which is barren and bleak. This is the world where the character Mary Lennox enters.

The musical, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, is an adaptation of the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story begins in India where Mary (Katie Hjortsberg) is suddenly orphaned by a cholera outbreak. She is sent to Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England, to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Jason Reichman) and his invalid son, Colin (Titus Fyffe).

With the help of a friendly robin, Mary discovers a key to a secret garden, walled off from the world. She befriends her maid, Martha (Kelli Folse), and Martha’s brother, Dickon (Jason Crase), who help her reclaim the garden.

Norman won the 1991 Tony and Drama Desk Award for best book of a musical. Unlike the novel, however, Norman brings the dead to ghostly life in her libretto, especially that of Archibald’s late wife, Lily Craven (Cathy Moubray) who sings the love ballad “How Could I Know.”

The ultimate theme is rebirth.

“It’s life coming back to a dark household and a dark family, characters who have had dark, painful, sad lives,” said assistant director Wendy Bernier. “The garden comes to life and helps bring them together.”

Jason Crase and Katie Hjortsberg in Secret Garden at Cocoa Village Playhouse. Photo by Goforth Photography

Crase says the moment will be unforgettable for audiences.

“Oh my goodness gracious,” he said. “Joseph and (scenic painter) Sheryl Koby and her assistant Joseph Cox have worked so hard. These vines are expansive and you see them first as dead then see them come to life before your very eyes. It is going to be a breathtaking thing for our audience to experience.”

To get to this moment, Lark-Riley has created images to be projected onto the set and has also turned to his parents, Theresa and Kevin Riley. They own the 58-year old nursery, Rockledge Gardens, the area’s prime hub for gardening ideas, abundant greenery and colorful blooms.

Working this show has been especially meaningful for Lark-Riley because he recently lost his grandmother, Mary Witte, who founded Rockledge Gardens with her husband, the late Harry Witte.

“My grandmother died while I was designing the show,” Lark-Riley said. “I started it and she got sick, was in the hospital. She was 97. She got sick near the beginning of design process, and that put her in the forefront of my mind. Her name is Mary, which is name of little girl. And she started the garden center and had an undying optimism to her, saw the best in everyone. So getting my head into this show and this design was very easy because she was with me through the whole thing.”

Additionally, his grandfather, Harry, painted watercolors of flowers, which Lark-Riley has embedded into his projection designs.

Interestingly, Lark-Riley says that first, the absence of the lush garden is crucial for the pay-off. Audience will see Misselthwaite first in earth tones and grays and then to a verdant, lush space.

“We first see the garden in a dream. When she first goes into it, we’re using these images I’ve created digitally. The next time is at night, and the garden is done with projection. The third time is the big reveal where we use a combination of projection and the entire stage is filled with flowers — actual and projected flowers. There are blossoms everywhere and they are existing within the structure we’ve been seeing in the entire show. It will completely transform that permanent architecture, covered with blossoms and greenery.

“Everything comes together the moment the father comes home, sees his son standing for the first time and sees the garden for the first time since his wife died.”

Secret Garden at Cocoa Village Playhouse. Photo by Goforth Photography

Also part of that moment is the music, said Mike Law, music director and conductor of the 14-piece pit orchestra.

“I love that moment,” he said. “It just builds, becoming this crescendo, a glorious moment.”

One of his musicians, Michelle Scheen, plays 11 instruments in the show. She uses a recorder to represent the robin. To set the stage for the magical moment, Law said, the orchestra plays a percussive piece called “Come Spirit, Come Charm,” which entreats the spirits to heal Colin.

Simon’s lush melodies have a wide range, Crase said.

“Lucy Simon is the older sister of Carly Simon,” he said. “So you have this beautiful classic feeling and melodies but when you get in Martha and Dickon’s characters, you get this folk rock.”

Of course there is more to the scenic design than the garden.

Lark-Riley has created two staircases that rise from center stage and go off right and left. He kept them at different heights in order to suggest a state of imbalance.

“It disrupts the space,” he said.

The actors have to go around it, over it, under the staircases, using them in multiple manners. They become limbs of a tree, vines covered with roses and even hills.

“It’s a beautiful show,” Lark-Riley said. “I work on a lot of theater and sometimes it’s just a job. But this is a show I’m excited about for personal reasons and because it’s so beautiful.”

“The Secret Garden” runs through March 25 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Tickets are $16 to $24. Call 321-636-5050 or visit

This story ran previously in the Melbourne Beachsider. All photos by Goforth Photography.