Review by Sean McQuaid
When is an Anne of Green Gables story not an Anne story? When it’s writer/director Hank Stinson’s entirely Anne-free stage musical adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1919 novel Rainbow Valley.
Granted, the novel itself isn’t steeped in Anne content. The fifth of LMM’s books featuring Anne Blythe (née Shirley), Rainbow Valley offers a middle-aged, married Anne who’s more of a background character, a proto-Mary Worth who observes other characters’ livelier antics, offering occasional advice, support and commentary.
Those characters include widower John Meredith, new minister of Glen St. Mary, and his young children; their feisty young orphan pal Mary Vance; Anne’s friend Cornelia, who later adopts Mary Vance; Anne’s children, who share their titular outdoor hideaway with the Meredith kids; spinster sisters Ellen and Rosemary West, the latter courted by John; and wealthy curmudgeon Norman Douglas, Ellen’s former beau.
The novel is soap-operatic in its episodic, intermittently romantic tales of a big, densely interwoven ensemble; but the musical focuses on fewer characters, mostly John Meredith (played here by Colin Hood) and his four children Una (Keili Johnston), Faith (Brooklyn Riley), Carl (Jace MacPherson) and Gerry (James Ronahan), plus Mary Vance (Hannah McGaughey), Rosemary (Samantha Bruce) and Norman (Corin McFadden), with an expanded role for meddlesome society matron Mrs. “Kitty” Alec Davis (Shelley Tamtom).
Gone are the Blythes, Cornelia and Ellen, though some of their functions shift to other characters, while Mary Vance becomes a more central and sympathetic figure here than in the novel. Stinson’s expanded, slightly softened take on Mary works fairly well, subbing Rosemary for Cornelia as Mary’s mother figure is effective both dramatically and in terms of narrative unity, and eliminating the Blythes has little plot impact despite Anne’s son Walter being one of the novel’s most memorable characters.
The equally distinctive Ellen’s absence is more keenly felt, partly for eliminating her and Rosemary’s odd couple dynamic, and partly because the novel’s unique Norman-Ellen romance becomes Norman’s half-hearted, unrequited infatuation with Rosemary in the musical, a tacked-on, largely pointless subplot by comparison.
It’s an able adaptation overall, however, and an efficient one – in terms of distilling a sprawling novel into a coherently compact play, it’s an achievement reminiscent of the Deane/Balderston 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula, only more faithful to the source material.
Stinson and score composer Dean Burry first adapted Rainbow Valley way back in 2000, now newly revised and remounted in 2018 under the auspices of ACT. Pam Jewell’s attractive, plausible costumes, Mystaya Idt’s lively choreography and solid sets by stage manager Sharon MacDonald & Cyril Armstrong all enhance the package, as does assistant director/musical director/accordionist Marti Hopson’s small-but-mighty “Alley Cats” mini-orchestra.
The superb Samantha Bruce is a standout in a strong community cast, understated and believable as Rosemary but moving and entertaining, with really fine vocals on numbers like “Love Sweet Love”. McGaughey is quite good as Mary Vance, Hood and Tamtom are effective in their parts and McFadden is cartoony but fun as Norman, leaving no scenery un-chewed.
Johnston, Riley, MacPherson and Ronahan lend lots of energy and charm as the Meredith kids, despite occasional technique hiccups such as projection issues. Ronahan is the most consistently audible of the junior quartet, and quite likably natural as Jerry.
The show’s book and lyrics incorporate many choice bits from Montgomery’s text, crafting a warm, gently funny family story, and Burry’s tunes are often infectious; the title track in particular has haunted your susceptible scribe’s skull for days now. When I last absent-mindedly hummed it, my daughter heard me and offered her own six-word review: “That was such a good musical.”