For your anglophile analyst, the Charlottetown Festival’s endless run of Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™ feels a bit like the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, another decades-spanning institution that recasts its lead role over and over again. On Doctor Who it’s called “regeneration,” a life-prolonging rejuvenation process in which the titular alien Doctor morphs into a new form played by a different actor.
It’s a regeneration year in Anne-land as the Festival’s evergreen musical tale of novelist L.M Montgomery’s plucky PEI orphan casts its 19th Anne Shirley to date, Emma Rudy, who injects plenty of fresh new life into a grand old part. She’s the best Anne I’ve seen in ages, with a lovely singing voice and plenty of the requisite sweetness and light, but with a sharp comic sensibility and well-timed flashes of harder-edged intensity, like her Anne’s fierce admission of how much she enjoys insulting Rachel Lynde (Rebecca Poff). This Anne is fun to watch, but she’s also an Anne you don’t want to mess with.
A potently comedic Rudy helps set the tone for an especially funny production of this musical. She has great comic chemistry with Shawn Wright’s Matthew Cuthbert and Katie Kerr’s Diana Barry in particular, and director Adam Brazier and his cast find ways to dial up the laughs throughout, often via off-kilter line readings (Rudy & Kerr both excel here) and plentiful nonverbal comedy: a malfunctioning parasol, Anne’s board-stiff backward plunge into bed, Diana’s table-sprawling drunk scene, the Avonlea kids’ half-scandalized reaction to their new female teacher’s shockingly modern pants.
The Festival began a multi-phase, multi-year revamp of the musical in 2017 – new sets (including automated and motorized set pieces), new costumes, new orchestration and sound design – that continues to pay dividends. The show’s oft-layered flats add both decoration and depth, the minimalist schoolhouse does a lot with relatively little physical material, and the revolving Green Gables set is a richly detailed, attractive and versatile space.
Standouts among a strong cast include Kerr as a winningly weird Diana whose quirky energy makes her both highly watchable and believable as a chum for Rudy’s oddball Anne; Brittany Banks, multitalented veteran of the Guild’s rival musical Anne & Gilbert, an animated treat here as a sunnily sour Josie Pye, Anne’s romantic rival; Poff’s tartly sly comic stylings as Avonlea busybody Rachel Lynde; and solid work from Sara-Jeanne Hosie and Connor Lucas as Miss Stacey and Gilbert Blythe, respectively, plus amusing bit players like Jacob MacInnis as Cecil the Farmer and Gray Monczka as Moody MacPherson.
Wright feels oddly younger than the average Matthew, though his easy interplay with Rudy and sweetly sentimental moments like his wistful rendition of “The Words” make it work; but perhaps the night’s greatest acting achievement belongs to Marlane O’Brien as Matthew’s crusty sister Marilla, a part O’Brien has resumed for the first time since 2014 as a last-second replacement for an unwell Susan Henley. O’Brien’s only expected to play the first couple shows of the run until Henley recovers, but regardless, she eases back into her old role in this new production without missing a beat. Maybe regeneration isn’t everything after all…