REVIEW: "Anne of Green Gables," – CHANCE THEATER @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center
Updated: Jan 9
"Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"
With a libretto by Tony Award nominee Joseph Robinette and music and lyrics by Evelyn D. Swensson, “Anne of Green Gables, A Musical” is a 1997 adaptation of the beloved 1908 novel by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery about Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl whose hopeful, outgoing nature has a profound effect upon the small town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, circa 1878. The remounted presentation is directed by Casey Long, resident artist and co-founder of Chance Theater, presented on the Cripe Stage, and associate directed by Miguel Cardenas, with performances running through December 29th.
Yes, it’s a busy end of year in Anne-land as the musical version of the plucky PEI orphan hits the stage in Anaheim. This new dramatization captures all the charm and excitement of Montgomery's enduring classic about Anne’s adventures, from her first encounter with her austere guardian to her thrilling graduation from Queen's Academy. It’s an orphan’s tale retold, refined and repackaged as our heroine grows from ugly-duckling waif to talented and beautiful swan. In any case, whether you’re an "old friend" of Anne's or meeting her for the first time, this play will solidify a lasting friendship with one of literature's most unforgettable characters.
Emily Abeles (“A Chorus Line”), injecting plenty of fresh new life into a grand old part, not only possesses a lovely singing voice, but plenty of the requisite sweetness and light, combined with a sharp comic sensibility and well-timed flashes of harder-edged intensity. This Anne is fun to watch, but she’s also an Anne you don’t want to mess with.
The first “Anne of Green Gables” novel was published 112 years ago, and its sequels have sold some 60 million copies since. It has spawned at least 15 movies and television shows, mini-series, prequels and sequels (including an anime version in Japan, where the books have cult status), and boasts to be the longest-running musical in Canada, going strong since 1965.
As the story opens, we find fifty-ish siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (Marina Coffee, William Crisp) needing help running the Avonlea farm they call Green Gables, so they decide to take in a foster child from the orphan asylum in neighboring Nova Scotia.
To their surprise, the orphanage sends them Anne Shirley (Ms. Abeles), a bright, chatterbox with long, braided red hair and an active, almost theatrical imagination. The unassuming Matthew is instantly won over, but his sister, Marilla, a no-nonsense old maid-type, has little patience for Anne’s glib, frivolous nature and flights of fancy.
The orphanage made such a big mistake when it sent Anne Shirley to the Cuthbert home in Eastern Canada. Matthew and Marilla had requested a boy who could help out on their farm. But when Matthew finds Anne at the train station, he takes her home anyway, because—well, what else can he do? In the meantime, Anne, who has spent much of her childhood in strangers' homes and orphanages, is so excited to be part of the Cuthbert home that she can't stop talking all the way from the station to the Cuthbert farm.
Matthew's spinster sister Marilla, however, is unyielding. Anne must go back. She won't be able to help with the chores the way a boy could. The mistake must be corrected the very next day. In the meantime, the peppy 11-year old continues to be exuberantly annoying, insisting she should be called Cordelia. When they refuse to call her Cordelia, she says, "Well, you can call me Anne, but Anne with an E."
Ms. Abeles is a wonder as she embodies the loquacious, quick-tempered title character with carrot-colored pigtails and vivid imagination. As she effectively exudes this homeless drama queen’s spunk and jaw-dropping candor, she showcases a singing voice both pure and powerful, pulling off a character several years her junior with apparent ease.
Endearing herself with comments that are unwitting, innocent and sweet: "I know I chatter on far too much ... but if you only knew how many things I want to say and don't. Give me some credit," she makes mistakes inadvertently and offends friends and neighbors, but manages to shine on a contrite, sincere face as she asks for forgiveness: "And I promise I'll never do it again. That's the one good thing about me. I never do the same wrong thing twice." This is the delightful Anne of Green Gables we have loved now for more than a century around the world.
Gilbert Blythe (David Šášik, “Dogfight”), a handsome, smart, and witty classmate who is two years older than Anne, has a secret crush on her. Unaware of Anne's sensitivity about her red hair, he tries to get her attention on the first day of school by holding her braids and calling her "Carrots" in the classroom, whereupon she promptly breaks a slate over his head. Unfortunately, despite his attempts at apology, Anne's anger and stubbornness prevented her from speaking to him for several years thereafter.
The story is episodic and the center of the narrative is the personality and spirit of Anne as she fights for acceptance in a very restrained, nearly rigid, social fabric. Anne's awkward scrapes, aesthetic hyperventilations and temper tantrums are both touching and amusing, such as the segment where her bosom friend and “kindred spirit” Diana Barry (Maya Valenciano) unintentially knocks back several glasses of Marilla’s homemade currant wine instead of the raspberry cordial, getting Diana tipsy and pie-eyed.
Other domestic misadventures include accidentally dyeing her hair green, resulting in her head being sheared and wearing a ruffled dormeuse cap until it grew back. She ends up winning over each potential detractor or situation with her unquenchable good nature. However, she is defensive about her appearance, despising her red hair, freckles and pale, thin frame.
At first, the stern, austere Marilla says Anne must return to the orphanage, but after Anne wins her over, Marilla, who Anne describes as having "glimmerings of a sense of humor," decides to let her stay. Truth be told, Marilla’s life has been colorless and without joy until the arrival of Anne. And even though initially she tries to instill discipline in the child, she grows to love Anne's vivacity and radiance.
Faithfully recreating the memorable events and characters from the brilliant novel, all the tragedies and triumphs that mark Anne's growth from adolescence to early adulthood are here: her friendship with Diana (giggly, overly-dramatic and inquisitive just like most teenage girls), her feuds with Gilbert, her adoration of Matthew (who has no qualms about "spoiling" her and indulging her with pretty clothes and frivolities), the mistaken wine bottle, the cake disaster, the broken leg, the scholastic achievements, and the saving of Green Gables.
Short, simple songs, delivered naturalistically over a straightforward piano accompaniment are woven into the story rather than stopping the action. Lyrics and polyphonic verses by Ms. Swensson are clever, imaginative and well-formed. Several of the numbers are noteworthy: Ms. Abeles and Ms. Valenciano in “Kindred Spirits,” the charming Mr. Šášik's impressive rendering of his love-struck feelings as Gilbert, whom Anne was loath to forgive in “Anne of Green Gables,” and, “I Dare You,” performed by the students.
At sixteen, Anne goes to Queen's Academy to earn a teaching license, along with Gilbert and Josie Pye (Lily Bryson - a multitalented veteran of the Chance, and in this case, an animated treat here as the sunnily sour romantic rival of Anne) and several other students, excluding Diana, much to Anne's dismay. She obtains her license in one year instead of the usual two and wins the Avery Scholarship awarded to the top student in English. This scholarship would allow her to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree at the fictional Redmond College (based on the real Dalhousie University) on the mainland in Nova Scotia.
Finally, there's a bittersweet ending, which I won’t reveal right here. There are a few setbacks, I will say that. But Anne comes through in the end. She eventually even mends fences with her nemesis/secret admirer, looking forward to their next “bend in the road.”
Additional players include Darla Jacobs as Priscilla Andrews, a plain but sensible classmate who joins Anne’s class at Queen’s; Owen DiSciullo as Charlie Sloan. Charlie was not very pleasant - there wasn't anything wrong with him, he was merely Charlie Sloane. He had goggle-eyes, and had trouble laughing, like Gilbert. "And of course that's Charlie Sloane. He hasn't changed - couldn't! He looked just like that when he was born, and he'll look like that when he's eighty."
Caleb Smith plays Moody Spurgeon, a Presbyterian minister, whose parents were evidently adherents of evangelical Protestantism, for they named their son after two famous evangelical preachers: Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) and Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892); Grace Bates alternating with Carolina J. Flores as Minnie May Barry, the younger sister of Diana Barry, who Anne saves when she becomes infected with the croup. Sherry Domerego plays town busybody, Rachel Lynde; Samantha Bussard is in multiple roles; Music Director Kyle Short also in multiple male roles, all the while keeping up with piano interludes, and James Gittelson in a variety of male roles.
Costume Designer Erika C. Miller, along with her team of stitchers, Melissa Alvarez and Shannon Page, accurately depicted the time period with their modest dresses, cloaks, night clothes, and work outfittings. Scenic and Lighting Design is by Masako Tobaru, Audio Engineer is Jordan Jones, and Production Stage Manager is Bebe Herrera.
Anne "is the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice," growled a crusty Mark Twain, after reading the novel. She has inspired many imitations: her more genuine literary descendants surely includes the sprightly Pippi Longstocking, not to mention Sailor Moon - girls who kick over the traces, but not too much.
Chance Theater's production of “Anne of Green Gables, A Musical,” playing through December 29th, unfolds a story full of empowerment, learning, frustration, trust, friendship, and eventually…love. Yet it’s those very characteristics and a sense of endearing innocence that make this show as gosh-darn appealing as its motor-mouthed heroine. So don’t let this one pass by! Preorder tickets now at www.chancetheater.com while seats are available.
The Show Report
Photos Credit: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio