Dear Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge,
On behalf of the theatre critics of this fair country, welcome to Canada, Kate. I hope I'm not breaching etiquette too badly by calling you Kate - the prettiest Kate in Christendom; my super-dainty Kate - but I'm a little uncomfortable with that Your Royal Highness business. No offence intended.
Anyway, I understand you're an Anne of Green Gables fan and that's a good part of why Prince Edward Island is on your honeymoon itinerary. I've noticed, however, that the stage-musical version of the story at the Charlottetown Festival is not - you're meeting a couple of the performers in character, but skipping the actual song and dance.
I fear this is my fault, and that's why I'm writing you, Kate: You may want to reconsider and grab a couple of tickets.
A couple of years ago, the Charlottetown Festival production - which has been running each summer since 1965, believe it or not - visited Toronto and, as I'm sure you know, I damned it with faint praise. (Other critics just damned it.) I believe I called it "a crusty piece of cornball."
I also suggested that the show deserved to be reinvented and reinvigorated by a new creative team. Well, I guess this must be what it feels like to have people follow your royal commands, because the Charlottetown Festival has finally done just that. And, what do you know, this old warhorse of Canadian musical theatre by Don Harron and Norman Campbell really stands up when you give her a good shake.
New director Marcia Kash hasn't exactly revolutionized the musical, but she has dug beneath the surface of the show to explore the claustrophobia as well as the community of Victorian small-town life in a way the production that visited Toronto didn't. She has excellent help from new choreographer, Mike Jackson, and a fresh design team.
Jackson has added some energy and athletics into the formerly dated dance numbers, and also uses them to investigate character and to flesh out relationships that sometimes appear only as sketches in Harron's episodic book, particularly Anne and Gilbert's rivalry turned romance.
A couple of the new routines are a tad hokey - the egg-and-spoon race at the picnic, for instance, which shows no deference to gravity - but there are some very clever ones, too, as when Gilbert puts a frog down Anne's dress and the male chorus imitates all her herky-jerky movements.
The only problem is that Jackson's action sometimes clashes with Marie Day's starchy costumes (which have, unfortunately, not been "re-imagined" with the rest of the show). For instance, as "kindred spirit" schoolteacher Miss Stacey, Lindsay Croxall keeps getting bumped in the head as she executes her dance moves, her fashion-forward puff sleeves (a minor plot point) seeming like air-bags designed to protect her from her shoulder blades.
Otherwise, the Charlottetown Festival production looks great, thanks to Doug Paraschuk's smart sets. There are also four floating, cloud-like screens that fill the stage out nicely and on which projection- and video-designers Sean Nieuwenhuis and Ben Chaisson have brought in the ruby, emerald and sapphire of Prince Edward Island's earth, farmland and sea - the very nature that Miss Stacey instructs her students to study: "Look all around you/ Life will astound you."
This year's Anne, Tess Benger, is a real firecracker - full of seemingly uncontainable energy and imagination at first, then slowly growing into a young woman who has tamed her anger and pride. There is a certain depth lacking to the performance in the early scenes, however. A more genuine sense of struggle with her circumstances, beneath the bravado, might give the musical more dramatic weight. After all, the plot is little more than a series of escalating triumphs once Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to take Anne in despite having "clearly requested a boy."
As Marilla, Nora McLellan does find a rich, complex set of emotions under her reserved exterior, while Kristian Truelsen's Matthew is a real sweetheart, and has great father-daughter chemistry with Benger. The supporting cast is spirited, though a few of the male townspeople come across flat as cardboard.
On my visit to the Island, Kate, I heard this tale of how Anne of Green Gables came to be: Apparently, your grandmother-in-law, the Queen, saw a couple of Anne-themed songs that Harron and Campbell had written on the monarch's visit here in 1964 and said: "Very good, but where's the rest of it?"
Supposedly that led to its full-fledged expansion, which sounds apocryphal to me. Still, it would be a nice sequel to that legend if you and your husband paid a visit to the first major revamp of the show in nearly half a century, don't you think?
Don't do it for tradition, though, Duchess - do it for an enjoyable evening of entertainment. I know you know Anne's story, but I promise: You'll be left weepy at the end nonetheless.
One PEI production that the Royals will be making time for
While Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge have not booked a pair of seats to the retooled Anne of Green Gables on their visit to Prince Edward Island, they do plan to take in part of another Canadian musical running at the Charlottetown Festival this summer.
On July 4, the royal couple will stop their carriage by Confederation Landing Park to watch an excerpt of The Talking Stick, which is being billed as the first all-aboriginal musical in the festival's 47-year history.
"It's slowly sinking in," says Cathy Elliott, writer and director of the free lunchtime show that runs from July 1 to Aug. 20 at the outdoor amphitheatre at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.
"We're excited about it - well, excited and scared, as [Stephen]Sondheim would say."
The Talking Stick fits in well with the focus on youth being taken by the Duke and Duchess during their visit to Canada.
Retelling several First Nations creation stories, the new musical is performed by a cast of nine aboriginal actors between the ages of 15 and 21 who hail from all over Ontario and the East Coast. "This is such an amazing thing for these guys - they're going to meet a princess," says Elliott.
Her previous musical-theatre credits include Fireweeds: Women of the Yukon, and she has composed six original songs for the 45-minute production - a medley of which will be performed for the royal visitors.
"The first song begins, 'If you came across the water, Turtle Island welcomes you.' It's especially poignant because of the royal visit."
Anne of Green Gables: The Musical
- Book by Don Harron
- Music by Norman Campbell
- Lyrics by Don Harron and Norman Campbell
- Additional lyrics by Mavor Moore and Elaine Campbell
- Directed by Marcia Kash
- Starring Tess Benger
- At the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI