Red hair may go in and out of fashion, but a certain plucky, redheaded orphan named Anne (with an "e") has made an indelible mark on the imaginations of children both young and old for nearly 100 years. Sprung from the beloved and best-selling Anne of Green Gables novels of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery (first published in 1908), Anne has appeared across the media in various and sometimes unlikely forms: television movies, television series (including a cult Japanese anime version), stage adaptations, and countless fan Web sites. Anne has also inspired something of a pilgrimage, as many Green Gables devotees make the journey to Prince Edward Island to traipse across the nostalgic backdrop of Montgomery's descriptive work. A long-playing musical attracts tourists visiting the island; now, Theatreworks has produced its own Anne musical, a cheerful and brisk accounting of Anne's most memorable escapades, enhanced by the blithe and lyrical songs of Gretchen Cryer (lyrics) and Nancy Ford (music).
Intended for young audiences but enjoyable by all, the 90-minute show begins when elderly brother and sister Matthew and Marilla decide to adopt a boy to help work on their farm. When the orphanage delivers Anne instead, crotchety Marilla wants to send her back immediately. Soft-hearted Matthew, however, quickly develops a fondness for Anne's wild imagination and dreamer's personality, and he persuades Marilla to let her stay.
The most enduring characters in young-adult literature (Harry Potter, et al.) often triumph over dismal circumstances, and Anne is no exception. Orphaned and blessed (and sometimes cursed) with an overactive imagination, Anne must earn the love and support of the town of Avonlea—a community that is not used to accepting outsiders. Much of the joy in watching Anne arrives when she gets into scrapes and then digs her way out.
Book writer Cryer has abridged and adapted Montgomery's writing into a coherent, yet often breathless, coming-of-age story—we follow Anne through school, friendships (most notably, "bosom friend" and neighbor Diana Barry), the devastating loss of a family member, and the first sparks of love. At times, Cryer has perhaps shoehorned too much exposition into single scenes or bits of dialogue, depending too heavily on the (young) audience's comprehension. Happily, most of the show moves along smoothly, and she has cleverly spliced together stories to yield additional witticisms. (Die-hard Anne fans will love the vegetable she uses to describe Anne's newly—and mistakenly—dyed-green hair.)
Tyler Marchant's brisk and playful staging keeps the production zipping along, as do Dave Hab's jaunty orchestrations. If not every tune is memorable, the songs invariably work to prod the story along. Especially appealing are Anne and Matthew's bouncy duet "Kindred Spirits" and the surprisingly witty schoolroom number "The Use of the Colon." Anne and Gilbert Blythe also share a lovely duet called "It's Nice to Know," which lightly documents their slowly growing affection. Music director W. Brent Sawyer sits at the piano and gracefully conducts the small orchestra (cello and woodwinds).
Piper Goodeve makes an ebullient Anne, fiercely embodying both her irrepressible hopes and her melodramatic tirades. Her giddy solo "I Can Stay," in which she celebrates Marilla's decision to keep her at Green Gables, is a triumph of voice, personality, and athleticism. The little girls seated around me let out contented sighs at their favorite Anne moments—they clearly embraced this live and rambunctious version of their heroine.
The other seven performers offer Goodeve strong support, and Dustin Sullivan is particularly winning (and in lovely voice) as the "incorrigible" Gilbert.
Within an inviting oval proscenium, the design is as colorful and charming as a greeting card. Beowulf Boritt's simple set is dotted with vibrant red flowers, and Clifton Taylor's gorgeous lighting makes use of a sumptuous palette of pastels (he also does fine work creating rain and snow). David C. Woolard and David H. Lawrence contributed the iconic and eye-pleasing costumes and wigs, respectively.
If the design fails to call up the glorious landscape of Prince Edward Island, it's fitting for a production that—like its heroine—flies on the force of imagination. It's likely that Anne herself wouldn't have it any other way.