Anne & Gilbert
by Sean McQuaid
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s literary offspring Anne Shirley is a constant presence in PEI, but with an ever-changing face. Each version of the character has its own flavour, and assorted interpreters put their stamp on her story.
As such, the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre’s Anne & Gilbert unfolded largely as expected for this long-absent reviewer: a pleasant reunion with an old friend who’s comfily familiar yet somehow different.
It’s a year of the new for Anne & Gilbert: a new director (former cast member Martha Irving) and new incarnations of Anne (Amy Reitsma), Gilbert (Jory Rossiter) and Marilla (veteran Island singer Pamela Campbell in Irving’s old role).
For that matter, Anne & Gilbert itself retains the sheen of novelty; launched a mere five years ago, just a freckled fraction of the decades-long Anne of Green Gables musical run, it still feels fresh. Where Green Gables charts Anne’s childhood, Anne & Gilbert tackles Anne Shirley’s young adulthood, especially her romance with Gilbert Blythe.
Anne & Gilbert’s music, composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White with a lyrical assist from Jeff Hochauser, is as lively and memorable as its Charlottetown Festival counterpart, and more versatile in terms of tone, mood and style.
Hochauser’s book stays true to the characters while giving them a modern sensibility. Peppered with sly humour, romantic sparring and even occasional glimmers of mercifully genteel sexual innuendo, it’s a more grown-up script for a more grown-up Anne, while carefully preserving the characters’ natural sweetness.
The story drags a bit in act two, becoming heavy-handed or repetitious at times (no less than four heartwarming letter-readings stoke the plot), but it never bogs down for long, and Irving always keeps the show moving briskly.
Reitsma’s crisp enunciation and emotional intensity capture Anne’s intelligence without sacrificing her playfulness, and Rossiter injects enough vulnerability and self-mockery into his Gilbert to make the often-smug character as charming as intended. Campbell’s Marilla evokes the inner warmth wrapped in outer reserve so essential to the character, and Brittany Banks is a font of impeccable comic timing as Anne’s chum Diana.
Other standouts include Robin Craig’s tart-tongued Mrs. Lynde, Brieonna Loche’s lean and hungry Josie, Anders Balderston’s likeably needy Moody, and an animated, engaged Page Gallant making the most of her bit parts.
The colourfully costumed cast looks great apart from a few conspicuous microphones, and assorted quirks of lighting and movement spice up the often plain set, such as a lovely night-lit graveyard scene or Gilbert “swimming” below the main stage. In its best moments, Anne & Gilbert is as playful as Montgomery’s characters themselves.