Midtown is getting a little bit greener this winter, as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables comes to life in an enchanting new version by Royal Family Productions. Adapted and directed by Chris Henry, Anne of Green Gables: Part I faithfully dramatizes Montgomery’s tale of 11-year-old orphan Anne Shirley’s new life on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century.
The play, which quotes directly from Montgomery’s text through both spoken dialogue and voice-over narration, centers on the rambunctious Anne as she moves in with middle-aged siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who had initially requested a boy orphan but, finding Anne to be an “interesting little thing,” soon allow her to stay. Though Montgomery’s novel follows Anne through her teenage years, the play ends as she’s still beginning her time at the Cuthberts’ Green Gables estate; a second play covering the novel’s latter half is currently in workshops.
Bringing Montgomery’s words to life is Broadway veteran Ali Ewoldt, who engagingly portrays all the play’s characters. Ewoldt transforms herself into each character with a quick change of her stance; an angled slouch suggests the timid Matthew, while Marilla’s hard-nosed rigidity comes alive as Ewoldt primly clasps her hands in front of her. As Anne, Ewoldt conveys a naive yet intelligent earnestness that captures Anne’s dramatic personality, whether she’s smiling sweetly in ecstasy at her new home; declaring her life “a graveyard of buried hopes” when Marilla doubts Anne’s red hair will ever change color; or mouthing off at Mrs. Rachel Lynde after she tells Anne the Cuthberts “hadn’t picked you for your looks, that’s for certain,” telling the elderly neighbor she’s “fat and clumsy and probably hadn’t a spark of imagination in you.”
An ensemble of four dancers (Brooke Averi, Nichole Forde, Kara Melendez, and Stephanie Young) accompanies Ewoldt, performing contemporary and lyrical choreography by Lorna Ventura. The skilled dancers function best as the physical embodiment of Anne’s overactive emotions and imagination: soaring turns and leaps spiral out of Anne’s musings on her happiness at Green Gables, Anne gets lifted in the air to emphasize moments of excitement, and a dancer’s flop onto the floor punctuates Anne’s declaration that an evening “must be the very worst night I’ve ever had.” Anne’s imagination makes the ordinary extraordinary—the orphan imagines her surroundings as she travels to Green Gables as the whimsical “White Way of Delight” and “Lake of Shining Waters”—and the dancers’ alternatingly sweeping and punchy choreography feels like a natural extension of Anne’s vibrant inner world. Interstitial dance scenes capturing both Anne’s tormented past and blissful present are also effective at fleshing out her emotional states, and the production could have used these movement breaks more extensively to break up its large chunks of Montgomery’s text.
The choreography feels unnecessary when attempting to help Ewoldt act out the action, though; mimed conversations between Matthew and Marilla alongside Ewoldt as she speaks feel extraneous, given how physically expressive Ewoldt’s performance is on its own. The production’s projections (by Chelsie McPhilimy) often similarly over-explain the action; though a set design of flowing white drapes and the multi-hued lighting (both by Cheyenne Skykes) subtly evoke Green Gables’ lushness and greenery, the projections are sometimes gratuitously literal. Every time the dark-haired Ewoldt references Anne’s dreaded red hair an image of a red-headed Anne appears on screen, for instance, while cartoon drawings illustrate details of minor characters and stories of Anne’s past. By telling a story that focuses so heavily on the wonder of imagination, Anne of Green Gables: Part I should have trusted more in its audiences’ ability to exercise its own.
Royal Family Productions’ Anne of Green Gables: Part I runs through Feb. 11 at the Royal Family Performing Arts Space (145 W. 46th St., 3rd Floor). Evening performances are at 6:30 p.m. Thursday-Monday (except Sunday, Feb. 3, when the performance is at 5 p.m.); matinee performances are at 1 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, visit royalfamilyproductions.org.