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Strip Mining

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Review by Sean McQuaid

There’s gold in them there strips. Comic strips, that is, your blathering blockhead being a lifelong lover of same. Blondie, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or For Worse, Garfield, Liberty Meadows, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Mickey Mouse, the Spirit and many more, this reviewer’s known and loved them all – but none more than Peanuts (1950-2000), the late Charles Schulz’s wise, funny and gently tragicomic take on life as lived by luckless preteen everyman Charlie Brown and his pals.

The paragraph above refers primarily to comedy gold, but the strip also generated plenty of garden-variety filthy lucre. Peanuts continues to generate millions of dollars today, long after the strip ceased production. The characters have been merchandised endlessly, reprinted perpetually (notably in Fantagraphics’ sublime Complete Peanuts hardcovers) and adapted successfully into various other media, even theatre.

Which brings us to one of the most unlikely Broadway shows of all time, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (YAGMCB for short), written primarily by Clark Gesner. First staged in 1967 and remounted often since then, it’s a favourite of low-rent and amateur theatre companies due to its small cast and potentially simple staging.

That makes YAGMCB a perfect debut production for new PEI theatre company Head First Productions – a very professional but modestly budgeted operation – and their venue The Guild, continuing to defy its architectural limitations by somehow successfully mounting another honest-to-gosh musical within the compact, pillar-studded confines of a former bank turned arts nexus. Much like Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy playing baseball, it makes no sense, but somehow it works.

The same could be said of the musical itself. A gag-a-day strip like Peanuts is unlikely musical fodder at best, and Gesner’s day-in-the-life script is more an episodic mix of interlinked vignettes than a coherent story per se, but Schulz’s characters are so vivid and charming that it all adds up to an entertaining whole in spite of itself.

Those characters include lovable loser Charlie Brown (played by David Light), crabby diva Lucy van Pelt (director Brieonna Locche), her precociously wise little brother Linus (Andrew German), Beethoven-obsessed piano prodigy Schroeder (musical director Noah MacDougall), Snoopy (choreographer Tyrell Witherspoon) and Charlie’s little sister Sally (Jessica Gallant), who replaced early Peanuts character Patty in the musical’s cast of characters during a 1999 revamp of the show.

The cast are uniformly superb, though the ladies lead the pack. Gallant is the most convincingly and endearingly childlike performer of the bunch, and the fiercely funny Loche is so eerily perfect as Lucy it’s like she was genetically engineered in some cartoon laboratory for the role. Then again, Loche’s years playing a flawless Josie Pye in Anne & Gilbert might have something to do with it, too, since both characters are an amusingly volatile mix of vanity, anger and aggressive unrequited love (Josie for Gilbert and Lucy for Schroeder).

Loche also does a great job directing the whole shebang, though the unsung hero of the show may well be set designer Shawn Arsenault. His impressively durable and deceptively simple structures and backdrops fit well into the snug stage confines and perfectly replicate key images from the comic strips, right down to the thick squiggly outlines typical of Schulz’s inking. It’s the perfect packaging for one of the best and most entertaining musicals staged on PEI in years, hopefully the first of many Head First productions.

Religion Meets Science

Inherit the Wind

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your pseudo-simian scrutinizer is a religious man, albeit a deeply flawed specimen of same. Inherit the Wind is often called a tale of religion vs. science, but this reviewer prefers to think of it as religion meets science; not such a congenial collision as the chocolate and peanut butter in those old Reese candy ads, perhaps, but not an inevitable clash of natural enemies either.

For proof of potential religion-science harmony, look no further than Charlottetown’s recent Inherit the Wind production, co-produced by a church. Mounted by PEI community theatre mainstay ACT (their 50th production) in association with Trinity United Church (celebrating its 150th anniversary), the play was staged at the Trinity United Church Hall in a burst of anniversary synergy directed by John Moses.

The script was inspired by 1925’s infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial," during which Dayton, Tennessee civic leaders prosecuted schoolteacher John Scopes for defying a new state law against teaching evolution, regarded by some as undermining Christianity. In 1955, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized adaptation of the trial intended partly as a critique of 1950s’ anti-communist McCarthyism hysteria. The show was a Broadway hit, revived frequently since then and adapted repeatedly for film and television.

In the play, idealistic schoolteacher Bertram Cates (played by Adam Gauthier) is jailed for teaching evolution, supported by his smitten friend Rachel (Kim Johnston) and jaded reporter E.K. Hornbeck (Fraser McCallum), denounced by Rachel’s firebrand father Reverend Brown (Gordon Cobb), prosecuted by beloved religious conservative politician Matthew Brady (David Bulger) and defended by crusading liberal lawyer Henry Drummond (Terry Pratt).

ACT’s version makes good use of its church hall venue (despite some problematic sight lines due to the non-sloped floor), sending its players out onto the floor of the hall as well as on stage, selling meals and snacks though the adjoining kitchen, and casting the food servers and vendors and other production personnel as townsfolk preoccupied by the trial’s events, helping immerse the audience in the show’s reality.

This sort of dramatic immersion is becoming an ACT specialty as the company uses elements such as specialized venues, music or support staff to help build the world or set the mood of each show. It’s a nice touch, even if the church hall isn’t an especially theatrical or aesthetically rich space compared to some of ACT’s other venues.

Director Moses ably manages a sizable and mostly effective cast, including strong performances from Gauthier, Pratt, Cobb and Bulger, plus notably fine supporting work by veteran scene-stealer Rob Thomson as the Judge, Ian Byrne as frustrated district attorney Davenport, Keir Malone as the hapless Mayor, Kate Haines as a reporter and Alex Arsenault as radio personality Harry Esterbrook.

Less ideally, Kim Johnston’s delivery is too often flat, while McCallum’s Hornbeck is a smooth, polished and entertaining performance yet oddly hollow and one-note, never really layering anything emotionally substantial atop the character’s sardonic quip machine shtick.

The play itself is occasionally preachy and sometimes redundant in its repeated deployment of assorted eloquent defenders of free speech, but the story remains timely as self-appointed champions of religion and science continue to clash in our media and politics today.

Haunted Holiday

A Christmas Carol

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your yuletide yammerer is a sucker for Christmas. In fact, if he has a happy place, it’s probably basking in the soft rainbow glow of a well-decorated Christmas tree, with the likes of Bing Crosby, Boney M or Vince Guaraldi waxing seasonal on the CD player as loved ones gather near. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Not surprisingly, this deep and abiding affection for all things Christmas includes Charles Dickens’ evergreen 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, which this reviewer probably first encountered in its superb 1951 film adaptation Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, later seeking out the original Dickens text and many of its dozens of other adaptations.

A Christmas Carol is the second-most important and influential Christmas story of all time, surpassed only by the birth of Jesus (no shame in being runner-up there). Dickens’ classic novella is wise, funny, spooky, clever, inventive and imbued with a timeless sense of social conscience that makes his story as invaluably instructive as it is entertaining.

It’s also almost infinitely adaptable, having been revived, remixed and re-imagined successfully in a wide array of media and genres by entities as diverse as the Teen Titans (“The TT’s Swingin’ Christmas Carol,” Teen Titans #13, 1968), WKRP in Cincinnati (“Bah Humbug,” 1980), Mickey Mouse (Mickey’s Christmas Carol, 1983), the Muppets (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) and even Doctor Who (“A Christmas Carol,” 2010), to name just a few.

This endless string of adaptations includes plenty of live theatre, such as the stage musical version penned by revered Charlottetown Festival founder Mavor Moore for Vancouver’s Carousel Theatre in 1988 and remounted at the Confederation Centre of the Arts this December. Its original songs are pleasant albeit seldom individually memorable, and are generally well-executed by director/choreographer Liz Gilroy and her cast.

Moore’s adaptation preserves most of the Dickens story’s essentials. Mean, miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge (Wade Lynch) despises mankind in general and Christmas in particular until the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley (Justin Simard) gives him an overdue crash course in human decency, aided by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future (played by Renae Perry, Bruce Cummins and Connor Sharpe, respectively).

Lynch is the gift that keeps on giving in this cast, mostly because he’s so effortlessly funny. He portrays the darker aspects of Scrooge’s character capably enough, but he shines whenever he finds the humour in his role, sometimes in unexpected places; lines that might read less than hilarious on paper become side-splittingly comical courtesy of Lynch’s expert delivery.

The large supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Simard is great undead fun as Marley with his sepulchral voice, menacing presence and erratically shambling zombie-like body language, but other spectres are less satisfying.

The whiplash-inducing tonal shifts of Perry’s Past ghost – who lurches back and forth mood-wise between giggly sunshine and aggressive darkness – feel like two entirely different characters haphazardly stapled together, while Cummins’ Present ghost is a more coherent but also more pedestrian take on that particular spirit, not especially distinctive.

Other notables include a winningly sympathetic Stephen MacDougall as Scrooge’s long-suffering employee Cratchit, a charming Cameron Cassidy as Scrooge’s lost love Belle, and adroit comedic duo Olivia Barnes & Ellen Carol as cynical servants Dilber & Dobbs.

Presentation, like the cast, is somewhat mixed. For every sequence that soars like Simard’s bravura fireplace entrance, there are others that land with a thud, like the almost comically anticlimactic revelation of Ignorance and Want huddled beneath Cummins’ robe – there’s nothing in the performances or the production values in that scene that really conveys the potential horror of that moment.

Other, stronger scenes fall tantalizingly short of full success, like the Ghost of Christmas Future’s gliding, mist-shrouded entrance, which works wonderfully until the fog lifts just enough to reveal the wheeled dolly beneath his feet. It all adds up to a spirited and appealing but ultimately uneven take on the Dickens classic.

NOTE: Ye olde reviewer’s songbird sister Monica Rafuse appears here as Mrs. Fezziwig (and quite effectively at that), so this review is obviously haunted by The Ghost of Christmas Conflict. Factor that into your reading accordingly.

Drawing Conclusions

Doubt

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your sedentary second-guesser has about as much sporting blood as the average garden gnome, but there’s something undeniably compelling about two great talents in any field squaring off against each other; and ACT’s new production of Doubt offers that in spades, with a couple of ace actors waging one of the stage’s best verbal tennis matches. 

Winner of a Pulitzer, a Tony and other awards aplenty, veteran playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004) enjoyed a long, successful Broadway run and was adapted into a major motion picture by writer/director Shanley himself a few years later. 

Doubt is set in 1964’s Bronx, NY at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where preternaturally strict principal Sister Aloysius (Barbara Rhodenizer) rules with an icy iron fist. Based on her experience, intuition and virtually zero hard evidence, she becomes convinced that popular, progressive priest Father Flynn (Adam Gauthier) has developed an inappropriate relationship with 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller. Aloysius vows to expose Flynn, pressuring idealistic young nun Sister James (Renae Perry) and Donald’s wary mother (Tamara Gough) to join her crusade. 

Perry captures the increasingly troubled Sister James’ haunted fragility throughout the play, and also ably conveys the character’s joy and whimsy in her lighter moments. Gough is largely effective in her one scene as Mrs. Muller, giving a grounded, muted performance that suits her character’s weary cynicism. 

Main attractions Rhodenizer and Gauthier are individually impressive – Gauthier’s disarmingly warm and appealing Flynn with hints of something darker beneath the charm, Rhodenizer’s coldly rigid Aloysius leavened with plentiful dry wit and rare glimmers of human vulnerability – but these performers are dynamite together. Pitting two of PEI’s best actors against each other in two such complex, multifaceted roles makes for a thrilling, fascinating and immensely entertaining clash of the titans. 

Shanley’s lean, admirably economical script is brilliant, its characters repeatedly confounding and surprising us over the course of the story’s many twists and turns, and the truth of the conflict remains deliberately, tantalizingly elusive throughout. The script provides enough clues for viewers to draw their own conclusions but the show never quite confirms anything, always leaving room for doubt among audience and characters alike. 

ACT staged its production in historic St. Paul’s Anglican Church, designed by noted architect William Critchlow Harris and built in 1896. The venue’s beautiful Gothic Revival inspired church architecture and the choral music supplied by musical director Carl Mathis and the ladies of Coro Dolce help set the scene and the mood, and co-directors Brenda Porter and Paul Whelan make good use of the unconventional space in terms of keeping their performers both visible and flexibly mobile. 

Acoustics are an issue, especially for audience members further from the main stage/altar area. Gough in particular is hard to hear by times, though improving over the course of her performance; and the church’s diabolically uncomfortable pews were seemingly never meant for sitting through anything longer than a single sermon, so it’s a good thing this compact, engrossing show flies by as quickly as it does. 

Tennis, Anyone?

Doubt

Review by Sean McQuaid 

Your sedentary second-guesser has about as much sporting blood as the average garden gnome, but there’s something undeniably compelling about two great talents in any field squaring off against each other; and ACT’s new production of Doubt offers that in spades, with a couple of ace actors waging one of the stage’s best verbal tennis matches. 

Winner of a Pulitzer, a Tony and other awards aplenty, veteran playwright/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004) enjoyed a long, successful Broadway run and was adapted into a major motion picture by writer/director Shanley himself a few years later. 

Doubt is set in 1964’s Bronx, NY at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where preternaturally strict principal Sister Aloysius (Barbara Rhodenizer) rules with an icy iron fist. Based on her experience, intuition and virtually zero hard evidence, she becomes convinced that popular, progressive priest Father Flynn (Adam Gauthier) has developed an inappropriate relationship with 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller. Aloysius vows to expose Flynn, pressuring idealistic young nun Sister James (Renae Perry) and Donald’s wary mother (Tamara Gough) to join her crusade. 

Perry captures the increasingly troubled Sister James’ haunted fragility throughout the play, and also ably conveys the character’s joy and whimsy in her lighter moments. Gough is largely effective in her one scene as Mrs. Muller, giving a grounded, muted performance that suits her character’s weary cynicism. 

Main attractions Rhodenizer and Gauthier are individually impressive – Gauthier’s disarmingly warm and appealing Flynn with hints of something darker beneath the charm, Rhodenizer’s coldly rigid Aloysius leavened with plentiful dry wit and rare glimmers of human vulnerability – but these performers are dynamite together. Pitting two of PEI’s best actors against each other in two such complex, multifaceted roles makes for a thrilling, fascinating and immensely entertaining clash of the titans. 

Shanley’s lean, admirably economical script is brilliant, its characters repeatedly confounding and surprising us over the course of the story’s many twists and turns, and the truth of the conflict remains deliberately, tantalizingly elusive throughout. The script provides enough clues for viewers to draw their own conclusions but the show never quite confirms anything, always leaving room for doubt among audience and characters alike. 

ACT staged its production in historic St. Paul’s Anglican Church, designed by noted architect William Critchlow Harris and built in 1896. The venue’s beautiful Gothic Revival inspired church architecture and the choral music supplied by musical director Carl Mathis and the ladies of Coro Dolce help set the scene and the mood, and co-directors Brenda Porter and Paul Whelan make good use of the unconventional space in terms of keeping their performers both visible and flexibly mobile. 

Acoustics are an issue, especially for audience members further from the main stage/altar area. Gough in particular is hard to hear by times, though improving over the course of her performance; and the church’s diabolically uncomfortable pews were seemingly never meant for sitting through anything longer than a single sermon, so it’s a good thing this compact, engrossing show flies by as quickly as it does. 

Quick Bright Things

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Review by Sean McQuaid

First and foremost, ACT’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is funny. In fact, it’s the second-funniest Shakespeare this reviewer has seen in recent memory, surpassed only by Joss Whedon’s delightful film version of Much Ado About Nothing – which made ye olde reviewer laugh harder and longer than he has in ages at anything, Shakespearean or otherwise.

Staged in Stratford’s Robert Cotton Park (the site of ACT’s successful September 2012 production MacBeth), supernatural comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (penned circa the 1590s) is one of William Shakespeare’s strangest, most imaginative and best-loved plays.

Athenian ruler Theseus (Adam Gauthier) is marrying Amazon queen Hippolyta (Lana Mill), and the celebrations include an amateur theatrical production starring local weaver Nick Bottom (Richard Haines). Distractions include a fractious romantic rectangle formed by young lovers Lysander (Justin Shaw) & Hermia (Ashley Clark), Hermia’s unwanted suitor Demetrius (Benton Hartley) and his hapless admirer Helena (Olivia Barnes), plus feuding fairy monarchs Oberon (Bill McFadden) and Titania (Catherine MacDonald), all subject to mischievous meddling by Oberon’s impish henchman Puck (Keir Malone). Misunderstandings, magic, mayhem and matrimony ensue.

Gauthier (also co-producer) makes a suavely charming yet authoritative Theseus, though Mills is less convincingly regal as Hippolyta. Clark, MacDonald & Hartley are solid in their respective roles, the latter seeming more at ease with the Bard’s language than he did in MacBeth. Haines is hilarious as Bottom and a note-perfect McFadden crafts a coolly commanding Oberon laced with ample dry humour.

Barnes’ broad, sometimes cartoonishly anguished Helena is seldom naturalistic but often crowd-pleasingly funny. Watching her feels a bit like watching a breakout character from an old sitcom where the studio audience seems primed for merriment every time she’s on stage. It’s a very physically and emotionally big performance, seldom subtle, but an uncommonly entertaining Helena regardless.

A more nuanced Shaw shows impressive range as Lysander, equally effective here in comedic, dramatic and romantic moments; and a surprisingly agile Malone brings plentiful physical and emotional verve to the plum role of Puck, frolicking amidst the park’s foliage with engagingly manic glee.

Director David Bulger (who doubles as royal party planner Philostrate) and stage manager Sharon MacDonald keep their fine cast in fluid motion, leaping and tumbling and sprinting through the brush with confident quickness. It’s an energetic production, and the park setting adds colour and ambience. The mostly-modern costumes and set dressing are effective, especially portraying Bottom’s troupe of “rude mechanicals” as 21st Century rednecks (it’s like Duck Dynasty does Shakespeare), while more fanciful gear for the fairy folk lends their appearances a suitably timeless fantasy flavour.

Bulger doesn’t exploit the park’s various locales as fully as 2012’s MacBeth, giving this production a bit less visual variety, and the show’s fourth-wall-breaking audience facilitators (Philostrate and friends) aren’t quite as entertaining as their MacBeth counterparts, though producer Sara McCarthy is great fun in her bit part as the world’s surliest fairy.

The play’s lighting also gets a bit too dark for clarity circa scenes 6-7 after sunset, but the show’s biggest drawback is a whole other uncontrollable force of nature: perhaps the most numerous and aggressive mosquito onslaught in the history of theatre. These “tiny demons” (Philostrate’s apt description) help ACT achieve the seemingly impossible: making A Midsummer Night’s Dream bloodier than MacBeth.

Quality Drama

Rondelay

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your puritanical prattler was shocked, shocked to find the picture postcard purity of North Rustico wantonly sullied by the summer sex romp known as Rondelay. Even more disturbingly, he rather liked it.

The scene of the orgiastic crime? The newly minted Watermark Theatre, which changed its name from the Montgomery Theatre around the same time this show’s previews opened. Coincidence? One wonders.

Granted, the venue’s handsomely glossy program chalks this rechristening up to the theatre’s expanding mandate, its mark of quality drama and a nod to its watery hometown; but regardless, a season of risqué sexual drama seems an apt time to shed the wholesome mantle of children’s author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who is doubtless averting her spectral eyes.

In all seriousness, a name change makes sense at this stage in the former Montgomery Theatre’s development. The venue has long been gradually inching away from its initial scripts-available-in-Lucy-Maud’s-lifetime mandate to a somewhat broader “classics reignited” mission statement, and retiring the Montgomery moniker reflects this welcome evolution.

More importantly, a Montgomery Theatre by any other name still stages some pretty sweet theatre, and Rondelay is no exception.

Reigen (the play’s original German title referring to a circular dance) was penned by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler circa 1897 and banned by censors upon its public debut in 1903. The play proved enduringly popular in countries such as France (as La Ronde) and has been internationally adapted or imitated repeatedly for stage, television and film.

Rondelay is the latest English adaptation, penned by Watermark’s artistic director Duncan McIntosh and set in 1900-era Charlottetown instead of the original script’s Vienna. The names of people and places change, but the basic story remains the same underneath its fresh coat of local colour: sex, sex and more sex.

Eight men and women from assorted social strata fall into and out of sexual entanglements in a series of ten vignettes that play like a thematic anthology but are interlinked by recurring characters. Each character appears in two of the vignettes with two different partners.

Two actors play all eight characters: Rebecca Parent appears as prostitute Leocadia Campbell, servant Angie Patterson, adulterous wife Emma Symons and actress Ramona Payne, while Jonathan Widdifield portrays soldier Dominick Shaw, young gentleman Edward Jenkins, unfaithful husband James Symons & Justice David Davies.

It’s a quadruple success for both performers, who have good chemistry together and enough range to craft four completely distinctive characters apiece in one evening. Parent in particular excels at nailing the script’s comedy, from the dryly seductive wit of Angie’s workplace romance to the larger-than-life bombast of Ramona.

Director McIntosh and company paint these vignettes with feeling, by times sad, poignant, touching, tawdry, unsettling, and often surprisingly funny. They’re aided by Scott Penner’s fine sets and costumes, Michael Doherty’s evocative musical score and most especially T. Erin Gruber’s lighting design. Her projections – alternately naturalistic, impressionistic, surreal, cartoonish, symbolic, subtle or overpowering – help set the scenes, facilitate transitions, establish mood and express character, crafting a dreamlike atmosphere that permeates and enhances the show.

Occasionally long or awkward scene changes were among this polished production’s few inelegant notes, but your reviewer saw an early June preview show, so any rough edges may be rounded off by the time the play opens fully in July.

Humour and Heart

Anne & Gilbert, the Musical

Review by Sean McQuaid

Your shopworn showman was surprised to hear that Anne & Gilbert, the Musical was moving to Charlottetown, literally right across the street from ceaseless summer institution Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™.

It’s the ultimate (red)head-to-(red)head theatrical showdown. One can almost picture the two shows’ casts facing off in the street, menacingly finger-snapping à la West Side Story until they descend upon each other in a blur of smashed slates and broken brain pans, the corner of Queen and Richmond crimson with gore and raspberry cordial.

Back in boring old reality, however, it’s all peaceful coexistence so far. The elder show’s backers even bought ad space in the upstart production’s program. All very tediously civilized, though it doesn’t diminish the sheer chutzpah of new show A&G competing against Big Red on her home turf, and doing it with style.

Composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White with book and additional lyrics by Jeff Hochauser, Anne & Gilbert, the Musical is based on stories and characters from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables novels, particularly Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island. Those two books chronicle Anne’s young adulthood, as opposed to the childhood featured in Anne of Green Gables – The Musical.

Anne & Gilbert debuted at the Victoria Playhouse in 2005, enjoyed a years-long run at Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre, and has played on over thirty stages throughout Canada and the USA along the way. Its latest venue, The Guild, represents a double gamble: not only playing next door to the original Anne show, but doing so in a dauntingly compact performance space.

Returning director Martha Irving, her excellent company and the Guild staff rose to the challenge. It’s a breathlessly tight squeeze, with the actors often mere inches away from the front row; but it really works, laws of physics be damned. The show is largely undiminished by its smaller space, every seat in the house has a fine view, and this little-venue-that-could has never looked better.

Sometimes, working around the venue’s spatial limitations is actually an improvement. For instance, there’s no room for Gilbert to “swim” off the stage here as he did in Summerside, but a skillfully-deployed projection of rising water and some synchronized pantomime from Cook help make Gilbert’s aquatic misadventure funnier than ever.

A&G remains a witty, romantic story with a diverse, catchy musical score that offers a somewhat more adult version of Anne, executed here by a top-notch cast. Ellen Denny makes a fine maturing Anne, mixing shades of pensive vulnerability with the character’s customary whimsy, while a charmingly swaggering Patrick Cook might be the best incarnation yet of this musical’s teen heartthrob take on Gilbert.

Longtime A&G fixture Brittany Banks remains perfect as Anne’s best friend Diana Barry while doubling deftly as the show’s choreographer, and fellow A&G veteran Brieonna Loche crafts my favourite portrayal of Anne’s rival Josie Pye anywhere, winningly playful and exuberant without sacrificing the character’s trademark snark.

Margot Sampson is similarly effective as meddling neighbour Rachel Lynde, her physically animated, larger-than-life comedy balanced nicely by an understated Carroll Godsman as Anne’s dour adoptive mother Marilla; and invaluable Island theatrical institution Paul Whelan is an excellent all-purpose authority figure, filling the play’s various older male supporting roles with warmth, bluster, gravitas and verve.

A&G has never been a flawless show, and act two drags a bit as a string of heartwarming letter-readings repetitively and somewhat heavy-handedly stoke the plot, but that’s a minor narrative misgiving in a show with this much humour and heart.

Bonus Junior Review

So what did your ramshackle reviewer's five-year-old Anne fan think? The only show we could squeeze in on opening day was the evening one, so it was a late night for Elsa—leading, alas, to plenty of that odd squirming and re-positioning she does to keep herself awake when she's exhausted. She did stay awake for the whole thing, though, and mostly enjoyed a more adult Anne even if portions of it went over her head. "There’s some pretty weird things happening," she said at intermission, though she declared the dancing "pretty nice." She said her favourite song was "Carried Away by Love," but the song she was singing most often the next day was "That Little Fiddle Player," nicely executed by Morgan Wagner as Anne's college gal pal Philippa and featuring fiddler Moody MacPherson (Aaron Crane), who made a big impression on our little girl. Apart from Moody, the other character she singled out as a favourite was Anne's star pupil Paul Irving (Elijah Smith), though the scene in which Anne reluctantly subjects Paul to corporal punishment was nearly as traumatic for Elsa as it was for Anne. "The most scary part was where he got smacked," she explained. "It sort of, like, gave me a shock." Horrifying violence aside, though, the show still left a positive impression on her: "It was a little strange for me, but pretty good."

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