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Anne & Gilbert

Review by Norah Pendergast

Anticipation builds as the audience of Anne & Gilbert fills the Victoria Playhouse. With the hour drawing near cellist, Julia McLean and violinist, Mark Haines tune together. One can hear the chorus warming up through the walls of the restored, historic theatre. What excitement will Anne, Gilbert, and all the familiar characters find for themselves? Will the small army of local and imported contributors deliver? Will Anne & Gilbert live up to the hype? It’s a foreign and exciting feeling to enter a show wondering what Anne will be like, and what fate has in store for her.

Anne has grown into a woman, and though she is the last to know, she’s in love. Anne & Gilbert, the most anticipated play in Prince Edward Island this summer, does not disappoint. It is funny, charming, and musically and visually sensational. Writers, Jeff Hochauser, Nancy White, and Bob Johnstone, director and choreographer Duncan McIntosh, and producer Campbell Webster have succeeded in grand fashion. Refreshingly modern, Anne & Gilbert is magically artistic, and oh so romantic!

Set in the village of Avonlea and at Redmond campus in Halifax, Anne & Gilbert makes many references to the Maritimes and Prince Edward Island. The actors, set, and action provide a great reflection of our traditional culture. Future productions of Anne & Gilbert could take this representation of our culture to Canada and the world.

The simple white set provides the opportunity for much artistry on the part of the characters who move the pieces, making set changes part of the action. Carpenter Ron Quesnel has built the illusion of rural Victorian architecture, designed by John C. Dunning. The unassuming backdrop allows the play to transport the audience from school house to Green Gables, to Redmond, and back to Avonlea. The lighting is excellent and the props are perfect.

Twenty-one scenes are arranged around twenty-eight songs. The lyrics and music are wonderful. Musical Director, Lisa St. Clair oversaw the first delivery of many future classics, songs like, “Your Island through and through,” during which the youthful cast members join in traditional dance, and “Our Duty,” in which Marilla and Rachel Lind profess their Presbyterian motivation.

The sung delivery of the majority of verbal exchange allows the actors emotional command over the audience. The song “Hot House Flower” explains,symbolically, a very pivotal episode in the play, when Anne is forced to be true to herself. Dances and blocking are masterfully choreographed with the music. This enhances scenes such as one where school teacher, Anne, theatrically gives Paul Irving his first whipping, and the chase of the boys after Philippa Gordon during the song “Seesaw Girl.” Actors use the entire theatre space, entering and exiting via the main door, and participating in action from the theatre isles.

The costumes, designed by Phillip Clarkson, are dazzling, and include detailed Victorian suits and gowns, created with fine and diverse textiles. Dresser, Marilyn Cullen had her work cut out for her. The cast’s wardrobe is vast, including reproductions of Victorian bathing suits, children’s clothes, daily wear, ball gowns, a wedding dress, men’s suits, waiter’s uniforms, and even a very rare artifact, the Victorian maternity dress. The cast is physically diverse, from tall and strapping John Connolly as Moody MacPherson to little Brandon Banks as Paul Irving. The most exciting scenes are when the villagers fill the stage to sing and dance in delightful unison.

Comedic elements are provided by Pam Stevenson as Rachel Lind, Natalie Sullivan as Josie Pye, and Maria Campbell as Philippa Gordon. Laura Smith plays a dignified Marilla, a good companion to Stevenson as the gossipy Ms. Lind. One particularly funny scene finds Gilbert at the beach on his day off. Josie Pye has maintained her childhood interest in him and traps him in the sea after expressing her unladylike desires. Gilbert resists her, and every other feminine advance, with the conviction that he’ll either have Anne or bachelorhood.

Gilbert demonstrates his strong character by holding down many menial jobs while working towards his goal of becoming a medical doctor. He is the most sought after man in Avonlea and at Redmond University. Peter Deiwick is excellent as Gilbert, confident and handsome, the audience roots for him as he demonstrates time and again his loyalty to Anne. Marla McLean is an extremely loveable Anne, spunky and moralistic. Hearts melt and tears flow while McLean, alone on stage, delivers the powerful and surprising climax.

Anne’s parents speak to her from the grave in the form of letters retrieved from her birthplace by Gilbert. The letters express their love for each other and for her. The Shirleys implore their daughter to accept and cherish true love. Anne finds the strength to accept Gilbert as her life partner. Finally, Anne has role models to provide a necessary example of romantic love.

Lucky are those who have had the opportunity to witness the historic first production of Anne & Gilbert at the beautiful Victoria Playhouse. Lucy Maud Montgomery would be proud of this addition to her legacy. The play has recharged our weary icon, and will surely become a classic.

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