Monica Tipperreiter, center, joins the cast during a rehearsal of “The Secret Garden” at Mundelein High School on July 23. Tipperreiter had been slated to perform in the spring, but then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (Stacey Wescott/MCT via Chicago Tribune)

A week before students were scheduled to perform the musical “The Secret Garden” this spring at Mundelein High School in suburban Chicago, one of the lead actors was missing from rehearsal.

By the end of the evening, classmates were shocked to learn the reason.

Monica Tipperreiter, a senior who described the character “Lily” as her dream role, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Surgery was scheduled the next day, April 25, the teen’s mother told theater director Jonathan Meier during a phone call.

Within the next few days, the family learned the rare epidermoid tumor was benign — and the theater kids began formulating a plan.

“It was never even a question,” said Josie David, 16, describing the day the students decided to give Monica Tipperreiter her spotlight — even if it was a bit later than planned.

“We knew we were going to do it again.”

On a recent Friday, the “Secret Garden” cast repeated the performance that Tipperreiter missed in May, allowing her to take the stage as Lily and reuniting the students, some of whom are headed for college next month.

The show will be free, but donations will be accepted. Half of the money collected will go to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where Tipperreiter had been treated.

“All the kids are coming back for this,” said her mother, Debbie Tipperreiter, before the performance. “That is what I think is so cool, that so many people stepped up for her.”

Her daughter sang in choir and performed in plays throughout high school, but this was to be her first leading role in a musical. “I don’t think I had seen her as excited about anything as much as this,” her mother said.

Monica Tipperreiter, who turned 18 last month, started practicing for the role shortly after the musical was announced in September.

“I was kind of crazy,” said Tipperreiter, who was to sing six songs during the show. “Auditions weren’t until February.”

She realized that something was wrong one day in April, when she was posting handbills that advertised the show around town. Her eyes felt funny, but she couldn’t figure out what was wrong, she said. There were no classes on that day, Good Friday, but she returned to the school to attend a rehearsal and realized she had double vision whenever she looked down.

“When I started to go down a staircase — there were two of them,” said Monica, whose double vision continued for days.

“I blamed it on being tired because I had so much going on. I had two other choir musicals that I was preparing for, and I had prom a week later.”

She had coped with debilitating headaches for about two years and saw an optometrist and a pediatrician, who found nothing wrong. Her mother was not convinced by the assurances that her daughter was fine, and brought her to an ophthalmologist, who suggested an MRI.

That was April 24. Within an hour of receiving the results, doctors told Debbie Tipperreiter to drive her daughter immediately to Lurie hospital. They had spotted a mass in her brain.

“It was a horrible ride,” Debbie Tipperreiter said. While she worried frantically about the health implications, her daughter was unhappy that she had to miss that night’s rehearsal.

“It was my senior year, the last musical,” said Monica Tipperreiter, who will attend the University of Iowa this fall. “It was my first lead part. It was the perfect part for me, with the kind of music I like.”

— Chicago Tribune