A star is born in the Goodspeed Opera House’s current production, a world premiere musical based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic young adult novel, “Anne of Green Gables.” Her name is Juliette Redden and she won’t soon be forgotten. The new musical she heads also has plenty of promise. A trip to Goodspeed is highly recommended.
With book and lyrics by Matte O’Brien and music by Matt Vinson, “Anne of Green Gables” finds aging siblings Matthew (D.C. Anderson) and Marilla Cuthbert (Sharon Catherine Brown) awaiting the arrival of an orphan boy they’ve secured to work on Green Gables, their family farm on Prince Edward Island. Much to Marilla’s chagrin, the orphanage sends a girl named Anne Shirley (Redden) instead. Anne soon distinguishes herself in the small-minded town as a “different kind of girl” who makes fast friends and uses her brains instead of her looks which she often derides. Born with flaming red hair and freckles and boasting a feminism that seems way ahead of its time, this is a stirring coming-of-age story about Anne and those in her orbit. There’s the possibility of romance, of course, but progressive Anne is far more interested in expanding her mind than accepting marriage proposals.
In an exceptional cast, Juliette Redden is the true anchor for a show that relies heavily on its title character. She has the requisite Broadway belt with a voice that never falters. She also radiates pure energy and purpose as the forward-thinking Anne with a passion for learning and truth. She is a real find. Anderson and Brown are wonderful as the Cuthberts with Brown especially good as Matthew’s stern sister. Her deadpan delivery and common sense practicality is often very funny. She also gets a terrific 11 o’clock number late in act two that nearly brings down the house. Pierre Marais, as the high school heartthrob, Gilbert, has the charisma and charm to win both sexes at his school and Tristen Buettel, an understudy for Michelle Veintimilla at the performance I caught, is everything her dream girl role calls for never suggesting she was unprepared to go on. Stealing scenes as the Cuthbert’s endlessly nosy neighbor, Rachel, Aurelia Williams is superb and has a great second act duet with Redden called “Make a Move.”
Some caveats: The show is in very good shape for a world premiere, but there’s no doubt that its first act is stronger with a second act that could use some tinkering as it meanders with at least three different endings. The score is tuneful without being especially memorable but is so well sung by the accomplished cast and so creatively choreographed by Jennifer Jancuska, you may not notice. The period is confused, though, with the sensibilities of the 1950s but costuming (Tracy Christensen) that is all over the map and a score sounding very contemporary with its soaring ballads and “American Idol” belting. Director Jenn Thompson has cast superbly but allows some odd business having actors pile all the props in the center of the stage at the end of act one and then just putting it all back at the top of act two. It looks like busy work for no purpose. Scenic designer Wilson Chin has gone for a less-is-more effect with a bare bones setting, but the rotating platform stage center doesn’t really register and isn’t well-used. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design, however, is a constant highlight.
There is talk of a Broadway run for “Anne of Green Gables,” but whether audiences will support an old-fashioned family musical like this in the age of “Hamilton” and “A Strange Loop,” is yet to be seen. Still, the show is very much at home on the Goodspeed stage which, not that long ago, made a substantial musical hit of another red-haired orphan with a similar name who went on to Tony winning glory on Broadway. Fingers crossed!
“Anne of Green Gables” continues at Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main Street in East Haddam, Connecticut, through September 4 and masks are required. For further information, call the box office at: 860.873.8668 or visit: http://www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.