marla mclean and peter deiwick in the world premiere production, 2005.
I was born twenty-four years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My mother, Shirley was also born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and her parents, Florence and Joe were born in little adjacent towns, Souris and Little Harbour, Prince Edward Island. Lucy Maud Montgomery courses through my veins, and Anne of Green Gables
has been tightly knitted into my heart since the first time I saw Megan Follows recite “The Lady of Shallot.” A nostalgic, homey, magic always leaves me watery eyed whenever a Montgomery tale is adapted, but there is a special, tender spot in me for Nancy White/Bob Johnston/Jeff Hochhauser’s musical Anne and Gilbert
now playing at the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre
in Summerside, Prince Edward Island until September 19th, 2009.
I first saw Anne and Gilbert
in its world premiere production at Victoria By the Sea, PEI in 2005 when I, like most people, was skeptical and worried about the “Anne Sequel.” How could this new show possibly measure up to Canada’s longest running musical, our cultural icon, the original classic Anne of Green Gables: The Musical
? Anne and Gilbert
has all the ocean spray, the dramatic arc and the sweet homey goodness of Anne
, but while the music of Anne of Green Gables
reflects that typical of other book musicals of its time, Anne and Gilbert
’s score is at once of a very specific time and place, grounded in the Maritime Celtic tradition of the Island, while still remaining within the realm of musical theatre and with distinctive modern elements that give the songs a certain postmodern consciousness. For a musical based on novels written in 1909 and 1915, Anne and Gilbert
is curiously refreshing, while still remaining as familiar, comfy, warm and wistful as a rainy day spent curled up in a quilt drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows reading John Steinbeck.Anne and Gilbert
continues the story of Anne Shirley, a young red-headed girl, who comes to live with an old spinster and her brother in Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, as an orphan at the age of twelve, despite the fact that they had sent word asking for a boy. Anne (with an E) quickly happens upon the most handsome boy in school, Gilbert Blythe, who falls in love with her when she smashes a school slate over his head in a fury for being called “Carrots.” Gilbert loves Anne of Green Gables, that much is clear, but does Anne of Green Gables love Gilbert too?
I happened to see this production during a rare understudy show, and had the fortune of seeing Brittany Banks play the role of Anne Shirley. She has a lovely voice and she portrayed Anne within a hue of sensibility and modest poise which stood in dramatic contrast to Anne of Green Gables and alluded to how much she had grown as a young woman and strengthened the connection between her and strict non-nonsense Marilla. At the same time, there were moments when the precocious, verbose, vivaciously imaginative Anne of the past would peak out through the façade and I think Banks’ characterization could have been further enriched had there been more moments of Anne, still a teenager, struggling to keep her passionate soul at bay in favour of strong good sense.
Brittany’s brother, Brandon Banks was entirely loveable as Paul Irving, although I did prefer Paul’s character when I saw Banks play the role four years ago, because the younger that character is, the more poignant I think his friendship with Anne becomes. Brandon is currently fifteen years old and has performed across the Island, at Neptune Theatre in Halifax (in Oliver!
and To Kill a Mockingbird
) and at the Stratford Festival (Oliver!
) and in Toronto (Ross Petty’s Peter Pan
). I saw him play Oliver several years ago at Neptune Theatre and was blown away by his talent. He is certainly one to watch.
Josie Pye, Anne’s nemesis, is an extremely difficult role to play. She is characterized in the novels as having an aggravating personality, coupled with her penchant for acting haughty, spiteful and deceitful. The actor portraying Josie needs to strike the perfect balance between doing justice to Josie’s character traits, without annoying and entirely alienating the audience. I have seen many actors attempt this throughout my years as a faithful ‘kindred spirit’ of Anne’s, and I have never seen anyone come as close to perfect as Natalie Sullivan does in Anne and Gilbert
. Sullivan’s Josie is sassy, playful, haughty, spiteful and deceitful, but she also has charm and allure, not to mention deep emotions that secure the audience’s empathy- at least to a certain extent. She also has a strikingly gorgeous voice, which helps her become the kind of nemesis that audiences love to hate.
Martha Irving gives one of her best performances to date as Marilla Cuthbert. While I was growing up, watching Anne of Green Gables: the Musical
in Charlottetown each summer, I became extremely attached to the only Marilla I had ever known at the Festival, Elizabeth Mawson. Mawson was the only Marilla most people had ever known, as she played the role for an astounding thirty-three years. When she left the Festival in 2003, I was dismayed and saddened because I was quite sure that no one again would be ‘my’ Marilla. It is most extraordinary because by all accounts, Irving seems like she should be far, far, far, too young to play Marilla Cuthbert (she’s also drop-dead gorgeous, for Lord’s sake!); but onstage she is transformed and as Marilla she is utterly heartbreaking. Her song “When He Was My Beau” deserved its own standing ovation. Somewhere, I believe, Elizabeth Mawson is smiling.Michael Hughes
is the Gilbert Blythe of your dreams. He portrays Gilbert with a precise mix of a disciplined, ambitious, responsible young man, and the charming, flirtatious, playful boy of his youth. Hughes is able to play the contradictions within Gilbert’s personality without calling attention to them. His performance appears so effortless and so sincere that it seems as though he just stepped out of a portrait from 1910. His beautifully smooth voice compliments the music nicely, and he also shows off his impressive dancing talents, especially in a rousing tap number in which a child gets catapulted into the air (and the audience has a heart attack). Nathan Keoughan plays Gilbert’s nemesis Roy Gardiner to great effect, and it is especially poignant to notice how Hughes and Keoughan have created their characters to stand in stark contrast with one another, down to the subtlest details.
The direction and choreography of Heidi Ford was especially top notch in this production, and the dancing matched the music in its ability to be at once of the past yet also so influenced by contemporary trends. In both the music and the choreography, the modern aspects of the musical act as a continual reminder that despite the backdrop of the Edwardian Period, the story revolves around a group of teenagers maneuvering around love, money, success and each other. I had the privilege of seeing Heidi Ford perform as Josie Pye, Diana Barry (numerous times) and Anne Shirley at the Charlottetown Festival throughout my adolescence, and I found that she was able to bring her expertise of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical
to her direction of its sequel. There were numerous subtle moments in Anne and Gilbert
where the direction mirrored a specific aspect of moments in Anne of Green Gables
. This was cleverly executed, and added a layer of depth to the work as a whole.
We all love our stories about home, and for me, it is Lucy Maud Montgomery who tells that story. Anne Shirley longs to make a connection to her family, to her roots, and to forge her own connections for the future. It is for this reason that she is so adamant in connecting herself to the places she lives, Anne of Green Gables. Anne of Avonlea. Anne of Windy Poplars. Anne of Ingleside. She needs to root herself to feel secure, because she spent so much of her life without a home. Anne never fails to stir up emotion in me or to coax the tears to stream down my cheeks. Anne and Gilbert
is as touching and heartwarming as a musical can be and if you are of the Race of Joseph, or you have more freckles on your face than turnips in a stew, and you happen to be within stones-throw from Summerside, I would like to share Anne and Gilbert
, a taste of my home, with you.
Anne and Gilbert plays at the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre in Summerside, Prince Edward Island until September 19th, 2009. For tickets please call 902 888-2500 or 1-800-708-6505 or visit the website. Also, on Sunday, September 6th, 2009 at 7:30pm, join host Martha Irving and Special Guests: The Cast of Anne and Gilbert and co-writer Nancy White for a Variety Show called Playing Our Part to benefit the PEI Cancer Treatment Centre. Tickets are only $15.00 and can be purchased at the lobby of the Harbourfront Jubilee Theatre, or by calling 902 888-2500 or 1-800-708-6505.