Anne & Gilbert—The Musical
Review by Jane Ledwell
The advertising tagline of Anne & Gilbert is “Anne of Green Gables in love,” but the great fun of this musical is that it takes a mighty lot of effort to convince Anne of this possibility. In a play that celebrates the strength and sufficiency of women’s friendships, the female characters have some work to do to persuade themselves to settle for anything less than the ideal.
Anne Shirley, as played by Holly Cinnamon, is least needy of all. Thoughtful, beautiful, headstrong, and brainy, surrounded by devoted friends, it is hard to believe she even really wants the romance she imagines in her story “Averil’s Ideal,” let alone her old rival Gilbert (Cameron Kneteman) — despite his handsome, confident, and devoted mien that makes the women around him swoon. Kneteman gives a persuasive and winning performance, but the show is clear that Gilbert’s wooing is not enough.
The women of the show provide a clear alternative to romance — especially the deep friendship between her adoptive parent Marilla (Marlene Handrahan) and Rachel Lynde (Catherine O’Brien), who live and express the joy and sorrow of “Our Duty.” In her own generation, Anne’s friends are also more appealing than any of the men. The earthy, funny Diana (spirited and comic Alessia Lupiano) seeks marriage for baudy adventure and fun. Anne’s university friend Philippa Gordon (a swaggering Eva Petris) gets to have the most fun of anyone in the play, stringing along beaux. But even Josie Pye (a sly, scheming Celia Koughan) embraces education and concedes that competing for men is beneath her.
Anne has to see another side of her women friends’ experience to look beyond friendship and independence — Diana’s physical enthusiasm, Rachel Lynde’s loss and Marilla’s regret in love, and even Philippa’s surprising softness. Ultimately, after being courted in more than one graveyard by more than one suitor, it takes the voice of Anne’s birth parents from beyond the grave (the sweet, sad “Forever in My Life” which heartbreakingly brought real tears to Holly Cinnamon’s eyes and voice) to prove love possible.
Anne & Gilbert owns The Guild and benefits from the intimacy of the performance space — the heads in the front row are just under the cast’s high kicks. It is delightful to hear the unmiked singing, especially when the songs’ harmonies and counterpoints come together. Musical director Tara Littvack’s keyboard was slightly heavy in the mix the evening we attended, though the vocalists made themselves well heard.
The show’s director and choreographer, Brittany Banks, brings a terrific backstory to her work, having started out auditioning for the premiere season of Anne & Gilbert and having played numerous roles on and off the stage in the evolution of the show. She cannily chooses best aspects of past performances and knows how to make the most of the wide, narrow stage, and Bryan Kenney’s set that wastes no square inch of The Guild. Banks is forgiving of broader dramatic gestures than the songs and story need to capture the audience — for instance, Anne’s seeming ideal mate, Roy Gardiner (Geordie Brown), is too much the mustachioed villain — but she will settle into trusting the strength of the material.
And the cast and crew have such good material to work with. I love the clever, tuneful, lively, and affecting songs and book by Jeff Hochhauser, Bob Johnston, and Nancy White. In songs such as “You’re Island Through and Through” and “Carried Away by Love,” they get at something true and essential about Anne and the Island, the inextricability of Anne from her place and her community of friends. The shows strengths ring clear in this year’s production.