“Anne of Green Gables,” the story of an orphan girl adopted by an aging brother and sister on idyllic Prince Edward Island, has been charming readers since it was first published in 1908. The book has sold more than 50 million copies, and has been adapted several times for film, television and the stage. This musical version of the story now at Wheelock Family Theatre is the one that has been performed in Charlottetown in the Canadian island province every summer since 1965, and while the story may be timeless, this musical feels dated.
Despite some terrific ensemble work and a feisty performance by Jennifer Beth Glick in the title role, Norman Campbell’s score is melodically limited, so few of the songs stand out. The story line follows Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, but the approach is superficial, as if we’re getting a selection of unrelated highlights: Anne’s temper gets her in trouble; Anne accidentally gets her friend drunk on homemade wine; Anne worries that she’s ugly and dyes her hair. The incidents all appear in the novel, but they aren’t presented here with any dramatic tension or sense that we are on a journey with these characters.
Glick does a terrific job illustrating Anne’s oversize imagination and forthright manner in the song “Gee I’m Glad I’m No One Else But Me.” She gets lots of support from Anne’s best friend, Diana Barry (Jenna Lea Scott), even though their duet, “Kindred Spirits,” sounds like a weak knockoff of any number of Jerry Herman songs (think “Mame,” or “Hello, Dolly!”). Also, Anne’s love-hate relationship with Gilbert Blythe (Bradley Jensen) and his jealous girlfriend, Josie (Kaitee Tredway), becomes the focus of the story, distracting attention from Anne’s relationship with her adopted family, Matthew Cuthbert (Robert Saoud) and his sister Marilla (Jacqui Parker).
Saoud does a lovely turn as the quiet, gentle Matthew and even though the lyrics to his ballad, “The Words,” are soppy with sentiment, Saoud’s direct delivery finds some sincerity there. Parker is also strong as the stern Marilla, whose disappointment about receiving a girl orphan rather than the boy she and Matthew requested, slowly turns to affection.
The musical’s best moments come in the production numbers featuring the children in the cast. Choreographer Laurel Conrad has devised combinations that highlight the talents of the Wheelock ensemble, particularly “Where Did the Summer Go To?” and the “Pageant Song.” But director Jane Staab is overly fond of parading the cast up and down the aisles, which slows the action down and pulls the audience out of the story.
At intermission, Emma Harris, 7, of Milton said she was enjoying it, but wasn’t quite sure how it would all turn out. But she confided, “I think Gilbert and Anne are going to like each other.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but by taking the focus off Anne’s indomitable spirit, we lose Montgomery’s theme of a young girl’s struggle to find a balance between her imagination and social expectations.