A flawed but fresh ‘Anne of Green Gables’ at Goodspeed offers a modern take on a classic – Hartford Courant
A bold new version of the children’s classic “Anne of Green Gables” at Goodspeed Opera House reinterprets the story’s major relationships, adds lively dancing and lots of chairs, and promotes a beautiful core theme of love and trust .
This “Anne of Green Gables—A New Musical” has a modern attitude, modern style, and a burning desire to take this story out of the bucolic country surroundings, frilly dresses, and nostalgic old-world mannerisms that have been confined for so long.
The children’s classic began as a novel by LM Montgomery, published in 1908. Montgomery wrote seven other books about Anne Shirley and her adventures in Avonlea and elsewhere. The characters she created have fueled dozens of television, film and radio adaptations. There have been several musical versions on stage before this one, including one in the Prince Edward Island region of Canada where the book is set that entered the Guinness Book of World Records for “the longest running annual production of musical theatre”.
The Goodspeed presents its version as a world premiere, although the show had an earlier production at the Rev Theater in Auburn, New York, in 2018 with the same director Jenn Thompson, choreographer Jennifer Jancuska, set designer Wilson Chin and music supervisor Amanda Morton. (The musical director leading the band here is Matthew Smedal.)
The show’s book and lyrics are by Matte O’Brien, who writes in an essay in the poster that “growing up as a queer person in a conservative town, I never felt like I belonged.” He says he felt an affinity with the character of Anne Shirley: “She was sort of ‘other’, like me — like a lot of us. We have all felt that we stand outside of a group or community, looking within, longing to be recognized, to see our value recognized, to connect.
This is a fair assessment of the guiding principles of this adaptation. It focuses on the reactions of Anne Shirley (played by Juliette Redden) as she is belittled, challenged, humiliated and generally misunderstood by the people of Avonlea, where she has been orphaned to work on a farm owned by the absurd Marilla. Cuthbert (Sharon Catherine Brown) and his brother Matthew (DC Anderson).
One of Anne Shirley’s main friendships is with Diana Barry (Michelle Veintimilla), whose career aspirations are derailed by her mother’s insistence on getting married and raising a family. O’Brien’s script reframes the Anne/Diana relationship as potentially lesbian, adding romantic tension to scenes where the young women are separated from each other.
Fixating on raw, varied, and often conflicting realistic emotions means that some of the original book’s simplistic stereotypical characters — the “beautiful” girl, the conceited handsome boy, and various overbearing, closed-minded adults — have room to grow. Several unlikely characters sing about self-discovery and regrets. These numbers include the moving “Marilla’s Song”, a stunning reminder of Sharon Catherine Brown’s musical and dramatic range; and several different tell-all songs for Gilbert Blythe (Pierre Marais), the schoolboy full of himself who finds himself smitten with Anne Shirley even as she continually undermines his self-confidence. The thrilling “Make a Move,” sung by Aurelia Williams (as cocky elder Rachel Lynde) is a decidedly upbeat showstopper about chasing her dreams that works its magic with a powerful R&B belt rather than a singing razzmatazz.
As with O’Brien’s script and lyrics, composer Matt Vinson makes a lot of interesting choices with his score. Scenes and songs that seem to take the form of lovey-dovey can get funny or angry. The tempos speed up or slow down. Expectations are challenged.
The sparse decor and choreographic style is at odds with much of what has traditionally happened on the Goodspeed stage. Chin’s stage design is abstract, with bare raw wood, an oddly shaped revolving central platform, and a pile of chairs. A preponderance of chairs can be seen as a recent theatrical trend (exemplified by the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple”), but is also reminiscent of plays about isolation and social confusion by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.
Likewise, the music does not conform to the usual Goodspeed pit orchestra. An eight-piece ensemble, structured more like a pop band than a musical theater orchestra, sits unseen behind the onstage backdrop rather than in the orchestra pit at the front of the stage. The band plays lively and quite loud, but it would be a stretch to call it a rock musical or even a folk-pop musical as it has been described.
The show’s perspective, its illuminating redefinition of certain plots and characters, and its invigorating score help “Anne of Green Gables” stand out as a sharp reworking of a timeless coming-of-age tale.
But this “Anne of Green Gables” also presents growing pains. There are entire scenes where the directing and choreography just tries to do anything to provide a visual backdrop for the dialogue. Rather than adding to what is being discussed, they often distract from it. The dance is a wonderful showcase for Jancuska’s singular choreographic style, which involves lots of squats, knee bends and elbow thrusts. But there are plenty of times it just doesn’t fit the story or the thoughtful, introverted tone of Thompson’s leadership.
Worse, the show did not find a clear and stable voice. It opens with an introductory number sung by Anne about herself trying to accomplish far too many things at once. The song, “Waiting”, paints an image of Anne as an excitable, headstrong, and optimistic person. It also delves into her backstory as an orphan. Then it suddenly becomes a song about the general concept of finding a home. It’s a lot to take in.
Shortly after this overloaded opening number, Anne suddenly stops telling her own story. The choir members begin to recite a third-person narrative. Later, it reverts to first person. The lack of a coherent voice can become confusing and infuriating. O’Brien and Vinson clearly know the story they want to tell, but won’t decide on the clearest way to tell it.
The show’s best songs are the ones where the characters verbalize their internal monologues, the kind of self-contained universal expressions of love or angst that Broadway singers like to put into their cabaret shows. The worst songs are the ones that have to deal with exposition, the ones that have to explain what Anne does next while working with awkward names like “Cuthbert.”
“Anne of Green Gables” is still a work in progress, much like its powerful and fallible heroine. What he has going for him, again just like Anne, is a determination to honor individuality, fight discrimination and show the positive possibilities of an assertive and open-minded society. Here’s hoping he finds his way.
“Anne of Green Gables: A New Musical” by Matte O’Brien and Matt Vinson runs until September 4 at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $80 $. goodspeed.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.