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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Production Outshines material in Village Theatre's
Anne of Green Gables

Also see David's review of Chicago

Anne of Green Gables
Carissa Campbell and Kasey Nusbickel
With a dream cast and solid production elements, the new musical version of the children's Anne of Green Gables, in for the holiday season at Village Theatre, sounds like the perfect package. Alas, when you unwrap the box, you find nothing substantial inside. The book, music, and lyrics by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman are pedestrian at best and grating at worst, and above all they fail at moving the very episodic story forward. At two hours and a half, plus intermission, the show feels far longer, despite the estimable efforts of co-directors Steve Tomkins and Vanessa Miller.

Based on the first of several books by Lucy Maud Montgomery, spanning years in the life of orphaned Anne Shirley whose spirit and spunk infuses the Canadian Town of Avonlea, the story brings Anne to the door of middle-aged brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert who abide on the estate of Green Gables. Part of the trouble with this, and an earlier, very popular Canadian musicalization (staged by Village many moons ago) is that much of what happens to Anne, while amusing and sometimes moving on the page, seems trivial and hard to dramatize on the stage. Anne makes a best friend, refuses to befriend the boy you just know will ultimately be her love interest, wins over the grumpiest lady in town, and even doctors a sickly child, but until late in act two, when a now young adult Anne suffers a deep personal loss at Green Gables, it is all rather uninvolving. Worse luck, the Vogt and Friedman tune-stack is unmemorable and repetitive. If you leave the theatre humming a tune or recalling a lyric fragment, it is simply because several of them are repeated ad-nauseam.

The good news about the show is the captivating, tireless performance of Kasey Nusbickel in the title role. Nusbickel makes sure her Anne is likable and flawed, incessantly chattering, an overly dramatic waif, who just wants to be loved by her adoptive parents and town. If the actress had one song that could stop the show, she surely would. And Nusbickel takes Anne into young adulthood seamlessly. She is matched by the excellent turns of Suzy Hunt and Dennis Bateman as Marilla and Matthew. Hunt blends a stern demeanor with a soft inner core like a master chemist, and rivets us with the evening's most solid song, "Through the Eyes of One You Love." Bateman, a twinkle in his eye, is a warm delight showing Matthew's instant infatuation with Anne, and abiding love and support for her. Carissa Campbell is a bubbly delight as Anne's worshipful best friend Diana Barry, and Beth DeVries is staunch as Diana's concerned mother who warms slowly to Anne's charms. Cheryl Massey-Peters knows that every strong heroine needs a strong nemesis, and her haughty know-it-all Mrs. Lynde is the perfect foil to Nusbickel's Anne, in a Miss Gulch vs. Dorothy Gale kind of way. Matthew Kacergis sings well in the impossibly bland role of Gilbert Blythe, Anne's destined to be sweetheart, and there are other standout turns from Jeff Church and Jon Lutyens as various male townsfolk, and Abby Duke Pollard and Kristin Culp as two of Anne's schoolmates.

Directors Tomkins and Miller have cast the kids' roles impeccably, such that they smoothly transition from grade schoolers to collegiates. Tomkins and co-choreographer Kristin Culp take advantage of what choreographic opportunities there are, and conjure up some nice pep with the second act ensemble number "Puffy Sleeves." Musical director R.J. Tancioco elicits fine cast vocals and a solid orchestral song from his small orchestra, with Bruce Monroe's typically adroit orchestrations benefitting the score immeasurably.

Scott Fyfe's scenic design creates a suitably dreamlike landscape of Avonlea, Aaron Copp's lighting design is rather especially lovely, and Deane Middleton creates suitable period attire for the turn-of-the-century period of the tale.

Anne of Green Gables is described as a musical in development and, according to program notes, has been for about ten years. If a full, praiseworthy production such as this can't make the show work, perhaps it is time to just call it done, and move onto new projects that don't defy adequate musicalization.

Anne of Green Gables runs through January 2, 2011, in downtown Issaquah at the Village's Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, and January 7-30, 2011 in downtown Everett, at the Everett Performing Arts Center. For ticket information and more go to www.villagetheatre.org.


Photo: Jay Koh

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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