Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
It will surprise no one to hear that I love Anne of Green Gables. Those who know me know that I re-read it on average twice a year. Not just any one of the dozen or so copies I own . . . the same dog-eared copy I bought at a school book sale when I was 10. I’ve read Anne. I’ve also taught it. I’ve seen it performed. I’ve heard it read aloud.
Mine is more than a mere fondness for the iconic and quintessentially Canadian heroine: my love of the books correlates to certain experiences. Like waiting years to see Anne of Green Gables the Musical in PEI at the Charlottetown Festival. Like receiving a box of “Anne’s Raspberry Tea”. . . and saving it, NOT drinking it. And like propping a bag of “Anne of Green Gable’s Potato Chips” on a book shelf for display. To me, the Anne series of books is the soul’s equivalent of a grilled-cheese sandwich.
And I’m hardly unique. Those who like the Anne series, like it a lot. And we die-hards can become very protective of Anne, along with Marilla, Gilbert, Diana and Josie…our literary kindred spirits.
So when I heard that Anne’s story had been continued in a new musical, Anne and Gilbert, based on Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island, my first reaction was wariness…which soon gave way to excitement. More Anne! Alright!
This week, my 15-year-old daughter’s reaction to news of Anne and Gilbert playing at the National Arts Centre echoed mine: “I really want to see it! I really like the books!” Her delight then turned to curiosity: “Why a new musical? By continuing the series, are the writers of the musical trying to appeal to a wider audience by updating and expanding Anne’s story?”
Brieonna Locche, who is playing Anne’s “bosom friend” Diana Barry in this production, seems to endorse my daughter’s speculation. “They are beautiful books!” she notes. She hopes that children seeing the show will be inspired and excited by the performances, especially those of the 6 young-company members in the show. “It is also exciting to share an iconic piece of Canadian Literature with children who may not have read or even heard of the series,” she adds.
Though it might not have been the creators’ overt intention to introduce Anne to a new generation of children, that may well be the result. Anne and Gilbert is 10 years young, and from its first production has earned rave reviews from critics and audiences. This NAC production marks the first time that it has played at such a large venue. The effect is not lost on Locche, who avers “it really is an honour to be performing in this beautiful theatre.” As the venue is much bigger than the one where she performed in Charlottetown, she has to remind herself to play “all the way up to” the balcony. And Locche practically beams when speaking of the crew and staff at the National Arts Centre, who she deems “second to none,” along with the “exquisite” set, costumes, wigs and props.
Locche should know. She’s no stranger to this musical, having played the deliciously antagonistic Josie Pye in an earlier production. “I must admit,” she smiles, “it was very fun playing the devious and desperate Josie Pye. Josie also gets a beautiful turn-around moment at the end, when she softens and shows her vulnerable side.” By contrast, Locche’s Diana is bubbly and “full of real down-to-earth sweetness.” Locche herself sees her true self as more Diana than Josie, and the coincidental fact that Ellen Denny (Anne) happens to be one of her real-life kindred spirits makes the role a treat to play. “We have so much fun on stage together exploring the huge discoveries of early adulthood.”
It is NAC-Ensemble member Paula-Jean Prudat who undertakes the role of Josie in this production. She sees Josie as a “complicated villain”, and one with considerable power that she loves to wield in a contrary fashion. “The very essence of Josie seems to be a mischievous and whole-hearted, contrary creature, always on the periphery, desperately yearning to be the central focus,” Prudat explains. “She tends to do whatever she wishes, even against her own better judgement. In portraying her, I try to find the cracks in her character’s make-up, because to me, that’s where the gold lies.”
In Prudat’s capable hands, Josie doesn’t serve as a mere foil to Anne or Diana. She is fearless and resolute–“a character of substance. She’s got her dark side but is not without the light,” and, Prudat muses, “I suppose that’s what makes her redeemable. Her own journey has hope, despite the trajectory she puts herself on. She grows quite exponentially in the span of the show, but it is her darkness, her need to be selfish and cruel in order to achieve her goals, that make her compelling.” What Prudat finds especially intriguing about Josie is that she almost never does what she’s told to do. “She has to see for herself, and that feels very human, almost childlike, in nature.”
An experienced and versatile performer, Prudat has welcomed the unexpected as a way to deepen her understanding of the character she’s portraying. In fact, she finds it “quite magical” when things go slightly awry during a live performance: “I fell twice, hard, in a preview chasing after Gilbert,” she admits with a smile. “My shoes needed new soles. And I must say it was quite a revelation to see how strongly ‘Josie’ felt about Gilbert in the scramble afterwards.”
Clearly, Anne and Gilbert preserves the spirit and plumbs the depths (sometimes unpredictably) of the strong female characters who fill the pages of the Anne books. When Prudat is asked about which moment she finds most affecting, her immediate answer features none of Anne, Diana and Josie: “Hearing Alison Woolridge (as Marilla) sing ‘When He Was My Beau.’ Breaks my heart every time.” Hers isn’t the only heart touched by Anne and Gilbert. Strong audience responses have prompted the NAC to extend the show through December 23. Locche is grateful for the opportunity to continue performing alongside Prudat and other NAC ensemble members: “All of the crew and staff at the National Arts Centre welcomed us into their family without any hesitation. I am so fortunate,” she acknowledges. Die-hard Anne fans are fortunate, too. The extension of the run of Anne and Gilbert into the winter break means that more of us can savour our on-stage “grilled-cheese sandwich” . . . and even go back for more.
News You Can Use
What: Anne and Gilbert by Nancy White, Bob Johnston, and Jeff Hochhauser; directed by Martha Irving; choreography by Brittany Banks; based on Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
Who: Audiences 5 years of age and up
Where: National Arts Centre, 53 Elgin Street, at Confederation Square, Ottawa, Ontario
When: running until December 23, 2015
For Information and Tickets: nac-cna.ca and 1-888-991-2787
© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya