By James V. Ruocco
The image of girlhood, as envisioned by Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery in the popular children's classic "Anne of Green Gables" - first introduced to the literary world in 1908 - is one to admire.
Orphaned Anne Shirley from Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia, is outspoken, independent, determined and strong-willed. She's a true friend. She places a high value on education. She is impulsive. She looks to kindred spirits for guidance. She also refuses to settle for second best, much less be compared to any boy who thinks he can outsmart her in life, in school, in competition or working on the family farm.
Make no mistake about it: This freckled, very talkative redhead means business.
And nothing, not even her fierce scholastic rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, the handsome young man who is completely smitten by her, will stop her from fulfilling her dreams.
With elements of the original story intact, but set to music, Anne's story - that's Anne with an E - balances charm, spunk and whimsy with absolute control and much-needed escapism in Goodspeed Musical's intimate take on the iconic story.
This "Anne of Green Gables" is quintessentially home spun (the play text has been written by Matte O'Brien) with beautiful, alluring stokes that glide across the Goodspeed stage, dotted and painted with hardcover contemporary flair and broad, intimate updates that heighten the musical's spritely gait and potency.
As musical theatre, it is profound and able-bodied.
It is recharged for the modern-day audience with invigorating capability.
Its snapshot of Anne's life in a new world is spotlighted with warmth and humor.
Its emotional blueprint is personal and reactionary.
This production also benefits from an exceptional cast of performers - leads, supporting players, ensemble - that amplify the inspiration of the book, its subtext, its characters and its welcomed adventures.
There's lots and lots of potential here, but nonetheless, this "Anne of Green Gables" could benefit from some very minor tweaking and retooling.
It packs an emotional wallop - that's a given - but it runs a tad longer than it should. Editing - ten minutes or more - should be mandatory.
Script wise, the musical could also benefit from the addition of pivotal classroom narcissist Gilbert Blythe to at least two or three more scenes. He comes and goes, then completely disappears, Then, guess what? He returns after a 20-minute (or more) absence.
Elsewhere, the characters of Matthew Cuthbert and Marilla Cuthbert could use some additional dialogue to elevate their already proven importance to the story.
An easy fix?
At Goodspeed, director Jenn Thompson has staged "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Oklahoma!" and "The Music Man" - three splendid musicals - inked, linked and recharged with the swells, perks, impressions and ingenuity that categorize her work in musical theatre. Here, she embraces the iconic "Anne of Green Gables" story with bite, with purpose, with sting, with emotion, with sentiment and with sweet-seeming resourcefulness.
Directorially, Thompson, once again, is at the top of her game.
Capable of creating given, important moments of hope, joy, warmth and purpose, Thompson crafts a proper, fearless and mighty production, framed with apt tallies of musical storytelling that unfold with remarkable ease, accent and vocabulary. Nothing is too big or too small for Thompson, a directorial conceit, that here, fuels "Anne of Green Gables" with a strong sense of entitlement, personality and invention.
In terms of staging, it's all about choices.
As was the case with "Oklahoma!" "The Music Man" and "Bye, Bye Birdie," Thompson dances to her own decided, creative beat. She experiments. She invents. She digs deep. She takes chances. She finds new ways to express herself. With "Anne of Green Gables," her directorial oeuvre reigns supreme with staging, movement and blocking that feverishly portrays the plentiful story arcs of O'Brien's adaptation, its unabashed jauntiness and its passionate aesthetic. She also peppers her vision with stand-alone movements, moves and jump-suited abandonment that anchors and revolutionizes the guiding thrust and narration of the piece and its deep inhale of individuality and freedom of expression.
The musical score for "Anne of Green Gables," a folksy mix of melodic, moving, plot defining songs, ballads, duets and strong ensemble numbers, is the brainchild of Matt Vinson (music) and Matte O'Brien (lyrics). There are 17 songs in all. They are: "Prologue," "Waiting," "The Asylum," "Easy," "Matthew's Song," "Different Kind of Girl," "Forever," "Anne's Response," "Ashes of My Youth," "Oh, My Diana," "Different Kind of Girl (reprise), Gilbert's Song," "Diana's Lament," "Make a Move," "Marilla's Song," "Before You Hit the Ground" and "Waiting (reprise)."
Musical director Matthew Smedal ("Mrs. Doubtfire," "Matilda," "The Body Guard") brings breezy, entertaining boom and effort to the O'Brien/Vinson score, thus, turning it into great fun for both actor, singer and audience. From start to finish, the music is fresh and minted with expansive warmth, rhythmic vigor, harmonic glow and interpretive specificity. The spirit of the music, its power and its potential sound, prompts many important moments that include "Waiting," "Before You Hit the Ground," "Different Kind of Girl," "Easy," "Forever" and "Ashes of My Youth."
Backed by an established team of musicians, the musical score never once loses its focus for a moment. Under Smedal's tutelage, the refinement of the playing, the pacing and the shaping are fiercely rooted and connected as is the peerless, powerful vocal quality of the entire "Anne of Green Gables" cast.
A standout in every step of the way is Jennifer Jancuska's persuasive, athletic, moody choreography, which, played out against Wilson Chin's hypnotic, atmospheric set and backed by Philip S. Rosenberg's equally impressive lighting design, is nothing short of brilliant. As "Anne of Green Gables" evolves - or tilts and glides, if you prefer - she fills the Goodspeed stage with raw, upbeat, frantic and bounding dance moves and patterns - angular, fitful, physical - that complement the musical numbers, their gesture, their bravura and their illuminating, syncopated sense of style and freedom.
True to form, there's sentiment and individuality here. There's character expression. There's storytelling evolution. There's exhilaration and danger. There's ceaseless motion. There's choreographic melody. There's cinematic underscoring.
Streamed and synced with edge, pulse, playfulness and obviously conveyed closeness and aggressiveness, Jancuska's choreography is root-tinged with moments that recall the springboard pathos and thrust of both "Spring Awakening" and "Mean Girls." Elsewhere, her timed, utterly inventive employment of chairs, props and moving platforms not only feels right, but when put together with the dancing, it becomes completely satisfying, insightful and wonderfully abstract.
In the lead role of the smart, saucy and outspoken Anne Shirley, Juliette Redden not only gives the performance of the season, but easily becomes the heart and soul of "Anne of Green Gables" - and well she should - with her joyful, engaging vocal rendition of the introductory "Waiting," which follows the welcoming "Prologue" at the start of Act I. Vocally, she can belt, roar and attack moments of simplicity, vulnerability, excitement and independence with a voice that rings pure and clear, but also reveals pleasurable doses of sheer fun, dazzle and full-beam luster. Acting wise, she brings an electric energy to the role, which is exactly right, offset by an invigorating command and likeability that never once loses its touch or hypnotic gaze through the production's musical storytelling.
Gilbert Blythe, as portrayed by Pierre Marais is dashing, charming, sexy and completely self-absorbed. Then again, that's the decided blueprint of his character, which the actor utilizes to full effect with natural, charismatic aplomb. Like Redden, he too comes to the Goodpeed stage with a beautiful singing voice and sound that makes every one of his vocals sound fresh, emotional and effortlessly alive.
As Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the sister and brother who welcome Anne into their home (not at first anyway, as they were expecting a boy), Sharon Catherine Brown and D.C. Anderson are the ideal guardians of the story (they each get a well-deserved and well-played powerhouse solo as well) while Auriella Williams, as the outspoken, busybody Rachel Lynde, amps it up ever so agreeably with a Jackee Harry-like vibe and jive that heightens her grand, invigorating performance. Playing the part of Anne's best friend Diana, Michelle Veintimilla brings charm and sweetness to the role. She also has an amazing singing voice which is used to full advantage throughout the two-act musical.
A captivating journey of dreams, ideals, sunshine, happiness and following your heart, "Anne of Green Gables" is a big-hearted musical with splendid choreography, a flavorful musical score, keen direction and a dazzling performance by Juliette Redden. Her presence, her charm, her confidence and her attachment to the project gives this even-keeled musical a self-esteem and luster like no other. And that is reason enough to buy a ticket, escape the scorched heat of a summer afternoon or evening and succumb to the oft-told story of Anne Shirley, a wildly creative young woman who whirls into the fictitious town of Avonlea, Prince Island, Canada, and changes life for the better, not only for herself, but for all those around her.