Review: ‘Anne of Green Gables’ brings the heart and humor in Goodspeed production
It seems like kismet that The Goodspeed should now be staging the world premiere of an upbeat new musical featuring a young red-headed orphan girl who charms with her smarts and feisty attitude.
After all, the East Haddam theater was where “Annie,” which went on to become a staple of the music theater canon, had its world premiere. (If the mere mention of “Annie” doesn’t firmly lodge the song “Tomorrow” in your head for the rest of the day, well, you’re a less suggestible person than I am.)
And The Goodspeed is currently staging the world premiere of a new adaptation of the classic children’s novel “Anne of Green Gables.”
The show — which boasts book and lyrics by Matte O’Brien and music by Matt Vinson and is directed by Jenn Thompson — is culled from the 1908 novel by L.M. Montgomery, but it infuses the story with a modern edge and a vivacious spirit.
The script leans into current attitudes about a woman’s worth and place in the world, and a few speeches sound very 2022.
The score swirls with a pop-rock sound and is pretty darned irresistible.
In this production, the actors are young adults, portraying the kid versions of the characters and then growing into their late-teen selves. It’s a conceit that, for the most part, works.
Another unexpected element: Instead of a pastoral view of an old-fashioned farm, scenic designer Wilson Chin created a spare set boasting a rustic, barn-like back wall. Chairs are attached high up, so performers can occasionally climb ladders to sit on those in-the-air perches.
A tale to tell
For those who never read “Anne of Green Gables” as a child, here is a quick plot summary:
Middle-aged siblings who are running a farm in a small town on Prince Edward Island ask an orphanage for a boy to help them run the operation. Instead, the orphanage sends red-headed orphan Anne Shirley.
Anne tries to make pals in her new town, even as she revels in her accomplishments in the classroom; she is not one to hide her light under a bushel. She gets into scrapes and situations. She squabble/flirts with classmate Gilbert Blythe. She befriends Diana Barry, who is guileless and pretty but nowhere near as bright as Anne.
As Anne settles in with those adults siblings, Mirella and Matthew Cuthbert (played by Sharon Catherine Brown and D.C. Anderson), Matthew tends to support Anne while Mirella is strict and emotionally reserved.
Different kind of girl
The character of Anne was ahead of her time, and the Goodpseed production makes the most of that. It emphasizes that Anne is smart, spunky, verbose, rebellious and competitive (she’s forever locked in a battle of one-upmanship with Gilbert). There’s a reason the writers titled one of her songs “Different Kind of Girl.”
Anne’s vulnerable side emerges with her need for home and for belonging. She’s also searching for love, not just romantic love (though it’s clear all along that that’s where the contentious relationship between Anne and Gilbert is headed) but also love among friends and family.
Juliette Redden, who portrays Anne, has a stellar singing voice, and it’s particularly effective on the plaintive “Anne’s Response.” It’s amusing when Redden’s Anne seems as though she’s about to drift into a starry-eyed love song over Gilbert but then bursts into an angry, Evanescence-esque number, “Forever,” as in she’ll hate him forever. Redden blasts that song out with a rock-star’s vehemence.
Redden plays Anne with a little too much gee-whiz, I’m-portraying-a-kid exaggeration, but that eases as the character ages.
Michelle Veintimilla, as Anne’s pal Diana, captures the heart of youth in a subtle, believable way, eventually morphing from a bubbly girl into a repressed young woman under the thumb of her controlling mother (played by Amanda Ferguson).
Pierre Marais brings the swagger as cocky Gilbert, who is put off balance by Anne.
And while Mrs. Lynde, a friend of the Cuthberts’, isn’t a central character, Aurelia Williams makes the most of her time onstage. Mrs. Lynde is full of sarcasm and truth-telling but at heart is loving and supportive. Williams is pure comic gold, whether she’s pursing her lips or staring incredulously at another character. Then, in the second act, Williams gets to flex her vocal muscles, and oh boy! She’s so formidable on the pop-Broadway anthem “Make a Move.”
More about ‘Anne’
As smoothly as this musical runs in many ways, there are some hiccups.
The first act burbles along with sass and energy. In the second act, the script tries to do too much, racing from plot point to plot point in a way that doesn’t give any of it the attention it deserves.
The choreography by Jennifer Jancuska has a cool modern edge, and the dancers always seem to be holding props — a sheet of paper, a bale of hay — as they romp through the numbers. Too often, though, the dancing seems to distract from the focus that should be on the main actor in a given sequence.
Will “Anne” become as iconic as “Annie”? Doubtful. What could? But it has the potential to have a long life in theaters.
IF YOU GO
What: “Anne of Green Gables”
Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Now through Sept. 24; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat.; also 6:30 on select Sundays and 2 p.m. on select Thursdays
Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org