Anne of Green Gables – The Musical
Review by Sean McQuaid
Your fickle freelancer walked into this year's Anne musical fearing he might be underwhelmed. Granted, the Charlottetown Festival's version of Anne Shirley is a reliable crowd-pleaser, but her sharing a stage with the Festival's surreally dazzling Alice Through the Looking-Glass this summer left your skeptical scribe wondering if plain, simple Anne might pale by comparison.
As it turns out, not so much. The whip-smart, wildly inventive Alice may be the better show overall -- heck, it might be the best show ever mounted on the festival's main stage -- but Anne herself is the better, richer character, and the musical built around her continues to satisfy with character-driven humour, charm and heart.
Former associate artistic director Wade Lynch returns as director of this year's Anne. There are lots of fun little touches befitting the comedically accomplished Lynch, plus some additional wordless scenes featuring a girl reading the original Lucy Maud Montgomery novel as our gateway into the story, a nice nod to Anne's creator.
Even with those extra scenes, Lynch helms a somewhat shortened version of the show here, and all to the good -- there's less of the outdoor sporting business, for instance, but what remains of that is still a lively visual spectacle with lots of tightly choreographed moving parts. The more compact running time is an especially good fit for a show that often attracts a child audience.
Performance-wise, publicity has focused on local actor Jessica Gallant as plucky orphan Anne Shirley – only the second Islander to fill the iconic role during its 51-year run – but she’s not the only item of note in the cast list.
Lynch has filled many of the musical’s roles with new faces (some of them new to the Festival and all of them new to their parts), including Hank Stinson and Charlotte Moore as Anne’s adoptive parents Matthew & Marilla, Festival fixture Glenda Landry as meddlesome neighbor Rachel Lynde, Ben Chiasson as Anne’s would-be beau Gilbert, Jessie Cox as Anne’s best friend Diana, Kayla James as Anne’s rival Josie and Katie Kerr as Anne’s teacher Miss Stacy.
Like Gallant, Stinson and Landry are Islanders, giving this year’s core cast an especially homegrown flavour. More importantly, all play their parts well, whether they are locals or “from away.” Gallant gives Anne the right mix of vulnerable sweetness and larger-than-life flourish; Cox is a girlishly charming Diana; Stinson’s Matthew is full of folksy pathos; Landry nails Mrs. Lynde’s obnoxious hauteur; Moore seems stiff at first as the repressed Marilla, even by the standards of the part, but is all the more emotionally potent when the character softens later on; James is fun to dislike as nasty little schemer Josie, as well as one of the company’s best dancers; and Kerr (who preceded Gallant in the title role) is bright and appealing as Miss Stacy, albeit somewhat implausible in the role since she often looks and sounds more like one of Anne’s classmates than a teacher.
An interesting asterisk, acting-wise: this review was based on a performance featuring understudy Anthony MacPherson as Gilbert, replacing an absent Chiasson. MacPherson usually appears in a smaller role as schoolboy “Moody” MacPherson but he slots seamlessly into a lead role here, which is exactly what an understudy is supposed to do. A solid triple threat, he sings, acts and dances his way through the part with energetic ease.
The story and the musical are so familiar by now, and this critic so old and jaded, that your reviewer half-expects to be numb to the play’s charms each time he returns – but it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t seem to have happened for the audience as a whole, either, if the large, happy crowd at this performance was any indication. These Gables remain evergreen.