“You’re never safe from surprises till you’re dead” is what Rachel Lynde always reminds Marilla. It’s perfect advice for the first-timer to a performance of Anne & Gilbert The Musical, running at The Guild until October.
As I do every time, I entered The Guild with no expectations and a lot of questions in my head, all wondering how this play would connect with my experiences watching Anne of Green Gables The Musical. I have been to The Guild several times and from the moment I learned that Anne & Gilbert would be staged there, I was thinking that the small stage and narrow hall would constrict the performers and box in the performance too much. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the black box had been completely transformed. The whole orientation was shifted 90 degrees so that the performance space included the whole length of the theatre, as did the audience space, which was transformed by several risers providing every row of the audience with perfect sight lines. Already, I was pleased.
Soon enough, the play began with the lively opening number of Avonlea schoolgirls in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Blythe” led by Brieonna Locche as Josie Pye. This song establishes the fact that Gilbert Blythe is the most sought after bachelor in town and Josie is out to make sure he becomes hers despite his known love for Anne. Margot Sampson’s portrayal of Rachel Lynde is livelier, wackier, and more endearing than the same character in Anne of Green Gables The Musical, albeit somewhat sedate in her first number “Gilbert Loves Anne of Green Gables.” Carroll Godsman’s Marilla Cuthbert still bustles around but her role as Anne’s adoptive mother has become stronger and more assertive. Ironically, it is through a letter to Anne at College that she reveals a depth of love for a former beau, which begins Anne’s journey to accepting her feelings of love. PEI’s most beloved character Anne Shirley, portrayed beautifully by Ellen Denny, is only slightly more restrained as a young adult, but still passionate and dramatic. Ellen Denny’s sweet, clear soprano voice reveals itself little by little and is at its best in her solos, my favourite being “Someone Handed Me the Moon.” Her best friend, Diana Barry, is played wonderfully by Brittany Banks, and shares Anne’s trepidation for married life. Unlike Anne, however, Diana is more excited, as she already has a beau and eagerly plunges ahead into marriage, while Anne continues holding Gilbert at bay, denying that she has any feelings for him. Patrick Cook is the perfect Gilbert, somewhat cocky, but utterly devoted to Anne, and certainly the best-looking guy in town. With his voice and looks, he most certainly will find not only all of Avonlea’s schoolgirls, but all of Charlottetown’s, hankering after him.
In the same way she instantly befriends kindred spirits, Anne befriends the wealthy Philippa Gordon, played by Morgan Wagner, whose bubbly but ever-pragmatic personality dominates the stage so that the fiery red-head seems quite sedate by comparison.
The projected backdrops were amazing, the proximity to the audience making one feel part of the scene, especially at the end of Act I. The sets were completely manageable and the execution of scene changes was disciplined and efficient. The costumes were reminiscent of the times. The music original, varied, and covering every range of emotions felt by the characters. The lighting was spot-on although I wonder if the space restricted back lighting and side lighting so that larger-than-life shadows were thrown about on the floor and backdrop, sometimes in more than one direction. Because the stage was much wider than it was deep, certain scenes had characters at opposite ends beyond peripheral vision, which limited the view for the rows nearest the stage. Having to turn your head to one side then glance quickly to the other just to see if something significant was happening there was a bit of a stretch. The best thing, however, was the absence of mikes. Hearing natural stage voices is something I really miss, because so many productions take advantage of wireless mikes, which can be a problem with a big cast and a lot of movement. Overall, though, the technical aspects of the production enhanced every minute of the performance and helped to draw the audience deeper into the atmosphere of Anne & Gilbert’s Avonlea.
Indeed, the surprises were plentiful in this play and, I am happy to say, they were wonderful surprises! The thrill of courtship, the warmth of a close-knit community, and the cheer brought on by song and dance were conveyed over and over again throughout the play. Brittany Banks’s lively and masterful choreography enhanced every mood and the Young Company players and cast executed it precisely and enthusiastically.
Patrick O’Bryan, a gentleman from Chicago sitting a seat away from me at the performance aptly summarizes what everyone in the audience must have been thinking by the end of the first act: “I am very impressed with the professionalism. The dancing, the singing, the music—all excellent!” To add to that, I say Broadway move aside, Charlottetown is here!