Review by Doug Gallant
Anne of Green Gables returned to the stage of the Charlottetown Festival to find she is still P.E.I.’s most welcome summer visitor.
More than 50 years after the curtain first rose on an orphaned girl with red hair and freckles waiting at the train station to begin a new life with a new family in Avonlea the desire to be part of her journey has never waned.
Someone once asked me why people go back year after year? We go back because the story so beautifully crafted by Lucy Maud Montgomery all those years ago still has the power to tug at our heartstrings. It still makes us want to stand up and cheer when Anne Shirley rises to the challenges life presents her and comes out on top. It still moves us to see Marilla Cuthbert open her heart to a child whose hopes of finding love and a sense of belonging have for so long been frustrated by others. And it still makes us hope that in the end Anne and Gilbert will find love.
In short, this story makes us care about the characters Montgomery created as if they were family. It is a remarkable story and one the festival has long strived to tell honestly, staying as close to the book as possible.
And while much has remained constant from year to year there are always changes.
Last year festival artistic director Adam Brazier introduced a dramatic new look that incorporated everything from new costumes, new wigs, new lighting and a new sound design to a bold new set. He replaced the classic Green Gables house with a somewhat more austere but still commanding structure which handsomely serves the purpose for which it was designed.
This year Brazier has introduced a revolve to the set which enables Green Gables to rotate, changing your perspective from an exterior view to an interior view and vice-versa. It is used sparingly but very effectively.
Brazier has also introduced several other changes this season. Some, like the absence of Matthew’s rocking chair in the kitchen and the reorientation of the desks in the school scene, are obvious. Others, less so.
There are multiple cast changes this season. The most significant change sees Shawn Wright step into the shoes of Matthew Cuthbert, who becomes Anne’s father figure. In another noteworthy change J.J. Gerber assumes the role of Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s would-be beau.
Wright is utterly charming as Matthew. The chemistry between Wright’s Matthew and A. J. Bridel’s Anne is wonderful. She brings out a sense of playfulness and fun in Matthew that will delight you. Gerber is a strong Gilbert, both vocally and physically. A good match for Anne.
When Bridel stepped into the high button shoes of the spirited and adventurous young Anne for the first time last year she clearly proved she belonged there.
With the experience she gained last season under her belt she returned this season with even more to offer and she holds nothing back. The energy and enthusiasm she brings is both amazing and infectious.
No less impressive is Susan Henley who has returned for her second season as Marilla Cuthbert, the matriarch of Green Gables whose transition from reluctant host to a deeply compassionate woman with hitherto untapped maternal instincts is a joy to observe.
Strong supporting performances are numerous, from Katie Kerr, who sparkles as Diana and Tara Jackson who blows the roof off the schoolhouse as Miss Stacy to festival veteran Marlane O’Brien, who ably portrays Rachel Lynde and, in her festival debut, P.E.I.’s Brittany Banks who shines as Josie Pye.
Brazier’s direction of Anne is inspired.
But he’s also got a first-class team, from music director Craig Fair and choreographer Robin Calvert to designers Cory Sincennes, Michael Walton and Peter McBoyle. And hats off to Donald Fraser for the new orchestrations.
All have contributed to keeping Anne vibrant, exciting and most importantly, heartwarming.