Before last night, I’m not sure when was the last time I saw the Confederation Centre of the Arts Charlottetown Festival production of Anne of Green Gables the Musical. No doubt it was when you could still play Bill Cosby comedy albums to a room full of people. The notion of a black or female president of the United States was still a fantasy, and the sour smell of Canada Rocks and its stillborn offspring still permeated the acoustic tortilla chips hanging above the Homburg Theatre audience.
In the 15 or so years previous to that, I had seen AoGGtM many, many times. Firstly, because it’s a musical I love. Secondly, there were years where I would watch it specifically to study the characters, the dialogue, the choreography, the minutiae of moments that might make a funny scene or idea for Annekenstein. To say I was very familiar with every line, every movement, every note of every song, every bit of funny business would be an understatement. I KNEW Anne of Green Gables the Musical.
Which is likely why I stopped going to see it. I don’t know whether I grew tired of it, or that it grew tiresome, but my desire to see each year’s faithful adaption of the previous year’s production waned. Despite the annual claims of exciting new changes to the production, it often turned out to be nothing more than a different shade of umber splashed on a scrim, a light design that tried valiantly to bring a new look to the stage, or a slightly different take on a tertiary character like Mr. Phillips. Not really enough to warrant repeated viewings, I decided. Anne of Green Gables Never Change, indeed!
So when I began hearing that THIS year’s production was a must-see; that the changes THIS year were actual, real changes; that the show THIS year was fresh and exciting and renewed, I was skeptical. Yet, the curiosity got to me and I became intrigued enough to once again visit the Charlottetown Festival’s version of Avonlea and see what’s what.
Well, holy smokes! How great is this year’s AoGGtM? It’s supremely great, is the answer. Real, actual, wonderful, exciting changes! I had heard about the new, rotating stage and was thrilled to see it in action, well-utilized in a number of dance numbers, but absolutely revolutionary in bringing the Green Gables home to life. I had heard the house of Green Gables set was new - and I’d been ready to be disappointed, fooled again by promises from this show that never changes. But it really is a new set design - not just the house scenes (which are exquisite), but all throughout the production. With this design, they’ve found new ways to play with and in and around the stage.
The music is, and was, and always will be a joy. A criicism of the show is that it’s somewhat dated, the music old-fashioned. Personally, I embrace the style of music and relish every note. Practically every song is supremely catchy, the lyrics smart and clever and affecting. It is terrific music. It is in my bones. (I worry about the year when they add more current sounds to the score, although I am always ready to hit the stage with Annekenstein’s “Ice Cream Rap”, which could easily replace “Ice Cream” at the end of Act One.)
I don’t know dancing from data input so I can’t really comment on that aspect of the show, other than to say I quite enjoyed the dance numbers although I think the show could lose at least one of them from Act Two. This is a problem with the script, though, as I think (and always thought) Act Two is pretty weak in terms of a dramatic push. I always thought it was a weird and strange place/way to end the show, like it was setting up for a third act that never comes. I suppose, though, the third act is materialized in the two acts of Anne & Gilbert the Musical playing at The Guild.
The cast is strong and sharp.
AJ Bridel as Anne Shirley is, quite honestly, the best I’ve ever seen. And it’s not even close. THIS is the Anne Shirley I now realize I’ve been waiting all my life to see. Her honest enthusiasm, joyful exuberance, and depth of emotion the character requires is inspiring to witness. I really appreciated how she subtly had the character mature throughout the production, simply through voice and body stature.
Shawn Wright is very, very good as Matthew Cuthbert (a role I’ve coveted for years) and I quite like the playful business they’ve added to his role.
I’m of the age where I still unfairly compare the current Marilla to Elizabeth Mawson and the current Diana to Glenda Landry. I appreciated Susan Henley’s Marilla for bringing a greater range of emotions to the character, making her more “real”. Mawson played the character’s stoicism to the hilt, which made her rendition of “The Words” always a powerful tear-jerker, when she finally showed emotion. Henley’s Marilla was more free with her emotions throughout the show, and so the impact of her version of The Words wasn’t as potent as I’m used to. However, I have never seen that song acted as well as she performed it, and from now on it will be this performance that I use to unfairly compare to future Marillas.
I wish the universe could work in such a way that every performance of AoGGtM could have Glenda Landry magically appear as Diana Barry just for the line “Anne! Your hair. It’s… green!”. It will, for me, always be Glenda’s line. So while I was thinking of Glenda’s Diana at the start of that scene in particular, by the end of it, Katie Kerr’s drunken Diana had completely won me over. She was absolutely pitch perfect in the role throughout the production.
J.J. Gerber was solid as Gilbert Blythe, with a standout voice. I could listen to him sing “Wondrin’” all night long. Tara Jackson superbly filled the puffed sleeves of Miss Stacey - I absolutely love the uptempo jazzy ending of Open the Windows. She makes it absolutely fly! Brittany Banks is perfect as Josie Pye - sparkly, mischievous eyes that can be seen all the way back in row K.
A huge congratulations, and thank you, to Adam Brazier for directing this exciting new version of Anne of Green Gables the Musical, and to the entire cast, company and crew. You brought so much that is new to this old stalwart of the Charlottetown Festival, without losing the heart and soul of what makes this show so special. So many new tiny moments and gags, lots of new humour and brand new ways to express and display those many iconic moments we’ve all seen so many times.
This year it really is true! This production of Anne of Green Gables the Musical is absolutely, positively a must-see.