Anne of Green Gables never change
We like you just this way
Anne of Green Gables, sweet and strange
Stay as you are this day
Anne of Green Gables in our hearts
You are forever young
one either settles in for a nostalgic trip down memory lane or leans forward the better to risk the knife edge of satire. Anne of Green Gables sits somewhere in the middle, an intriguing but unfortunately uncomfortable place to sit. The book Anne of Green Gables was first published in 1908, it has been a consistent seller ever since. Ignoring all the film and television adaptations, the first version of the musical appeared in 1956 as a special event on the CBC. This was adapted to the stage in 1965 for the Charlottetown Festival, where it has been a hit ever since making it officially the longest running musical of all time. And there is a reason that it is a hit: I'd forgotten how many laughs, how much Canadiana soul, and how much sweet Anne of Green Gables contains.
A radical interpretation could easily recast Anne of Green Gables as a melodramatic telenovela in which a manic-depressive ginger-pride latent lesbian descends on a small town, upends the social order, kills the patriarch and becomes the de facto ruler of Avonlea. That would work nicely with the relentlessly sunny music ripe for lampooning, but it would take a very daring company to let it onto the stage. To director Alan Kinsella's credit, he does tease out much of the subtext and thematic inconsistencies, but hasn't solved how make the two pieces fit together.
And that is just fine. Anne of Green Gables contains a lot of laughs and more than enough song and dance to sail the audience happily past the shoals of political and thematic tension, and the utter lack of dramatic tension. Jayne Peters is given the impossible task of making Anne Shirley into the beloved character we expect. Though sheer charisma, utter commitment to the mood swings, comic timing, avoidance of camp and a clear sweet voice, she does. Unfortunately the herculean effort required to make Anne Shirley spunky instead of suspect, leaves little room for the other characters to register.
The cast as a whole acquits itself well, papering over unmotivated changes of heart with emotional commitment and managing to make repetitive lyrics and peculiar reprises appear integral. Two minor comic roles get the timing and polish that make them shine. Thomas James Finn (Anything Goes, The Buddy Holly Story) blusters through an impenetrable but totally understandable accent and somehow makes a lascivious pedophile jovial and humorous. Jada Rifkin materializes crowned with a tornado hairdo and the equivalent in attitude to make the audience wish for the return of a Cruella De Vil of a Mrs Blewett. Rifkin is so watchable, and so invested - her discovery of a red pepper in a basket of ears of corn, was hilarious even though it was mere background to a supposedly comic number - that every time she is on stage, blended back into the ensemble, one keeps watching just to see what her expressive face and Margaret Keane eyes are up to.
Anne of Green Gables is explicitly designed as a large scale crowd-pleaser and the LOT does its best to provide spectacle. The set by Michael Galloro manages to do a lot while remaining wedded to realism with only the transitions - there are a lot of scene changes - being distracting. The large scale dance numbers fill the space available and are often witty but it is the sound of a chorus of voices soaring that is the magic of Anne of Green Gables, that redhead who "we like you just this way."