Anne of Green Gables
The Wheelock Family Theatre once again mounts a top-notch production, as director Jane Staab helms a musical play based on the 1908 children’s classic "Anne of Green Gables" by L. M. Montgomery. (The initials stand for "Lucy Maud," by the way.)
This wholesome story is so charming and so engaging that it’s no surprise to find it thriving as a vibrant stage play. First premiered in 1965, the musical has enjoyed annual productions ever since as part of the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward’s Island, Canada, where the story is set.
The traditional elements of the classic kids’ story are all in place: A smart, imaginative orphan, Anne (Jennifer Beth Glick), is sent to adoptive parents Matthew (Robert Saoud) and Marilla (Jacqui Parker) Cuthbert. (The Cuthberts are not a married couple; she’s a spinster, and he’s her bachelor brother. Evidently, "non-traditional" families are nothing new.) The Cuthberts are taken aback: They had asked for a boy to help them with the farmwork. But Anne is such a lively girl that Matthew and Marilla quickly discard their plan to send her back to the orphanage and decide to keep her.
Winning over the town at large is a different matter. At first, Anne’s wild imagination causes some consternation for the gentle folks of Avonlea, such as Mrs. Lynde (Maureen Keiller) and schoolteacher Mr. Phillips (Nick Sulfaro). Moreover, her sensitivity about her looks (red hair and freckles) provokes her to flights of pure rage -- to the astonishment and fascination of young Gilbert Blythe (Bradley Jensen), a development that incites the jealous rage of Josie Pye (Kaitee Tredway). In time, of course, Anne’s curiosity, generosity, and cheerful disposition make friends out of the town’s most skeptical citizens. But will the smitten Gilbert ever convince Anne to forgive his thoughtless remarks?
The Wheelock Family Theater’s venue seems custom-built for grand productions, and set designer Matthew T. Lazure has a field day, imagining Green Gables as a two-story house in cutaway so that we can observe action taking place in and around the house in several locales at once... a handy thing, especially in the scene in which Matthew, who warms to Anne more quickly than Marilla, spirits the girl out of her room from under Marilla’s nose, but gets her safely back just before his sister comes upstairs to check in on her. The backdrop looks a bit like a home spun quilt, and a bit like the fields and meadows of an agrarian community from a century past. The cumulative effect provokes nostalgia for a simpler time, and invests the audience emotionally in the setting and the community of Avonlea, where Anne works to fit in and can’t help but stand out.
But standing out is part of the joy of this production; the cast comes spilling from the stage and into the aisles repeatedly, transforming the entire theater into a performance space and bringing some extra charge into a highly energetic production. Lisa Simpson’s costumes look smashing on stage, but they are just as gorgeous up close.
Musical Director Robert L. Rucinski does a superlative job with the show’s 26 numbers, as do the singing members of the cast -- especially Glick, who belts her renditions with charm and verve. (She undertakes the production’s second song, "Gee I’m Glad I’m No One Else But Me" with such gusto and delight that Matthew is not the only one who’s taken with Anne; she has the audience eating out of her hand from then on.)
Saoud’s shy Matthew is another charmer; he despairs of learning to express himself in "The Words," but his tendency to be tongue-tied is a source of high comedy. He can’t get the words out in "General Store," the hilarious song in which he tries to buy a fancy dress for Anne and bystanders helpfully pile purchases on as they try to make out what he’s looking for.
Parker’s Marilla is one of those characters that seems tough on the outside, but who turns out to be tenderly devoted. Her turn at a reprise of "The Words" will bring tears to many an eye.
"Anne of Green Gables" is a perfect choice for the Wheelock Family Theatre: A show that’s adult-level sophisticated while retaining kid-friendly fun.