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Anne of Green Gables

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Piper Goodeve
Photo by Joan Marcus

Years before a curly-headed orphan named Annie wormed her way into Americans' hearts, another red-headed troublemaker was all the rage. Strangely enough, her name was also Anne - Anne Shirley. And as the title character in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables she charmed children of all ages as she moved from gawky adolescence to respectable womanhood.

It's amazing it's taken Anne so many years after Annie to ascend to stardom in a Theatreworks/USA musical, but at last she's doing so. And in the production of Anne of Green Gables at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, which has been adapted by Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford (music), she stakes a fair claim as the go-to girl for families looking for an enjoyable but mild new musical, as well as the de facto destination for scrappy actresses now too old or tall to play the hard-knock-life girl dreaming of a better tomorrow.

You just might not be able to tell that right now. As Anne, the orphan girl who's sent to live with farmers Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and overcomes their resistance to her not being the boy they wanted, Piper Goodeve has got spunk down pat. Her preternaturally furrowed brow and frequent scowl nicely suggest a girl who's learned to live life on her own terms, and now must learn to live on others'. Even her copper-plated belt of a voice matches the recklessness with which Anne not only insults her peers and elders alike but also braves the elements to rescue a tiny infant suffering from croup.

Unfortunately, you can push precociousness too far. You're always aware of the mischievous moppet, but you see no trace in her Anne of the sad history of her parents' death, or any trace of the vulnerability she's striving so hard to hide. Anne has always been something of a psychological study, but not a complex one - you simply need to believe this is a girl just waiting to be loved so she can give away love in return. With Goodeve, you never do, making her ultimate transformation from oversized girl to caring adult pack less emotional resonance than it should.

But if Goodeve's unyielding Anne does this production few favors, she can't obscure this being an uncommonly accomplished Theatreworks outing. Cryer's book may be unavoidably stuffed, cramming most of Montgomery's major events and characters into 90 intermissionless minutes, but the show doesn't feel rushed or overtaxing. Director Tyler Marchant treats all his stage pictures as glimpses of a rapidly flipping picture book, and his refusal to skimp on visual variety even in the show's quietest sections guarantees a show with a feel as fluid as its look. (Beowulf Boritt's placid orchard-town square set and David C. Woolard's rustic-regalia costumes help set the turn-of-the-century period beautifully.)

Bethe B. Austin, Goodeve, and Erick Devine
Photo by Joan Marcus

So too do the other performers satisfy: Erick Devine is grizzly-teddy-bear likeable as Matthew, while Bethe B. Austin is just right at masking Marilla's considerable affection with a distant iciness. (Her being moved to tears by Anne's educational success is one of the show's most understated triumphs.) Andrew Gehling is a smarmy charmer as Anne's good-natured nemesis Gilbert Blythe, and the lovely Jessica Grové is her usual ray-of-sunshine, voice-of-silver self as Anne's close friend, Diana Barry.

The songs are the currently typical Theatreworks mixture of playful and post-modern, perhaps trying too hard to tell full stories rather than illuminate moments. Titles like "It Was Not Because of Gilbert Blythe" and "The Use of the Colon" (for Anne's English class) are typical of the show's less-inspired offerings, but joyful numbers occasionally emerge in "Kindred Spirits," for Anne to bond with Matthew, and "Making Up for Lost Time," in which Anne and Diana develop and declare their eternal friendship.

Parents should be warned that the "girl power" story might turn off younger boys; at the performance I attended, a lot of them seemed as restless as the girls did enraptured. Luckily, the pervasive maturity of most of Anne of Green Gables means that accompanying adults likely won't find themselves feeling the same way.

Anne of Green Gables
Through May 5
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral