The show starts with a pre-recorded voice, that of Rachel Lynde, the busybody meddler who is one of the story’s dominant supporting characters: with a stern warning not to interrupt the show with “new-fangled gadgets” or “noisy children”, we’re off, settling comfortably into the world of Avonlea. It’s all in good fun, of course: the audience last weekend was plenty full of kiddos, and although they were pretty quiet, we didn’t hear another peep of that sort through the fourth wall.
What we did get was a warm, funny and very savvy musical theater adaptation of one of the most beloved stories in children’s literature. Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s Anne of Green Gables books may be more than a century old, but they have sold more than 50 million copies to date, and still have a hardcore fan base, as online fan clubs and the tourism board for Prince Edward Island will attest. Set in turn-of-the-century Nova Scotia, this quirky, engaging tale is hard to resist, even with all of the innocence and sweetness that could seem aggressively quaint to modern ears. Anne Shirley, an almost painfully precocious redheaded preteen, is an orphan who has spent most of her life in what we now call “the system”, bounced from orphanage to foster home and back again, more times than she can count. She finds herself summoned to a farm by an aging brother and sister, and although her fate is fairly uncertain, she proceeds to charm the community, one crusty soul at a time.
The key to any telling of this story is in the portrayal of Anne, not only because she is the protagonist, but because it is a surprisingly complex character, defying many long-treasured literary stereotypes: Anne is sweet, but far from dim; always in trouble, but not trouble itself; beautiful, but not a classic beauty — her attractiveness lies first in her magnetism. This dimensionality makes her wide-eyed enthusiasm fascinating, rather than cloying: just when you think you have her figured out, it’s hard to get a handle on her again. Both the show, co-authored Benita Scheckel and Michael Upward, and the lead, played by the astonishing Alison Woods, are fully up to the task. In general, the characters are rich and charismatic, and the music is beautifully sung, particularly by Woods, whose voice borders on flawless throughout.
The production boasts a small and versatile cast, working together to sing, dance, horse around, and very busily move sets in a flash, as the transitions between the many short scenes call for supreme adaptability and precision. The overall effect was that of a small town, working together and dependent on one another, right down to the cracker-jack crew — each change had obviously been carefully planned and rehearsed (just as it should be, of course), and everything seemed to go off without a hitch (which is not always possible). The simple set was charming and serviceable, playing interior and exterior with style, and Darrell Clark‘s lighting design worked seamlessly with the sets, the space, and with the hand-painted backdrops created by Anna Scheckel, to evoke a strong sense of place and the beauty of the unspoiled country setting.
The cast was strong enough that identifying standout performances is difficult. Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, played by Christopher Callen (named by her parents for the patron saint of travelers) and Don Margolin, respectively, were, once past Marilla’s requisite spit and vinegar, the warm and homey souls that any lost child would want to come home to. Christopher Higgins, as the local heartthrob, Gilbert Blythe, plays the part with intelligence and charisma, and both sings and dances well, winning the hearts of the audience as well as those belonging to the ever-present gaggle of swooning schoolgirls. Hands down, the best song in the show is “What Do You Call A Boy?”, a cavalcade of adolescent hormones that aptly expresses the ongoing battle of the sexes, with the teasing, the flirting, the mind-boggling reversals. This romantic play-drama is truly adorable in the post-Facebook world, for its simplicity and nostalgia, but also for its smart insight into the minds of teenagers, then and even now. The other boys in the cast are a good foil for Gilbert’s dominant presence, and Melinda Porto (Diana) and Kailey Nicole Swanson (Josie) turned in solid performances as best friend and nemesis. (Swanson is perfect as the pretty girl we love to hate.)
But there were two players who came close to stealing the show: Barbara Niles, as the aforementioned Rachel Lynde, can make you simultaneously want to smack her and hug her, and James Jaeger, as the hapless but well-meaning teacher, Mr. Phillips, (as well as a brief stint as the stationmaster in the first scene) has many moments of whimsy that will make him hard to forget. His characterization as Phillips is dead-on in posture, voice and demeanor — just as I’d always imagined.
The music itself, both the songs and the incidental tunes, is well-crafted and infused with significant humor, embodying Upward’s style and putting the best of his considerable talent to good use. He and Scheckel are a well-matched team, resulting in a script that is funny, thoughtful, and quite true to its source. Concessions to time or logistics are few, if memorable — little girls with the croup don’t usually throw up and then jump up with an immediate zest for life — but any such license is fully excusable. In the end, Upward and Scheckel (Scheckel and Upward?) have succeeded in building a strong adaptation and some very entertaining storytelling.
All photos by Chris Ellis, courtesy of 134 West and summerland entertainment.