I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to see what was only the second production of Anne and Gilbert in the United States. It was produced by a community theater company in Decorah, Iowa just 10 minutes south of Burr Oak and handily on the evening of their Laura Ingalls Wilder Days event, so I got to do both.
The musical’s official page is here and you can listen, watch videos, and buy stuff about the production (I’m going to):
The book of the musical is by Jeff Hochhauser, music is composed by Bob Johnston and Nancy White, and lyrics by Nancy White, Bob Johnston, and Jeff Hochhauser. This production was directed by Olga Rinco, musical direction was by Carl Rowles, and choreographers were Robyn Ovans and Joseph Carey. Anne was played by Haley Gibbons and Gilbert Blythe was played by Aaron Kvale.
I enjoyed it very much, but I want to clear up some expectations. Read this with the proviso that this was a community theater production, not the professional version and that I saw Anne of Green Gables: The Musical in 1990 (with a professional cast – and have been trying to get someone around here to put it on ever since). With all long running shows there tends to be creepage and I can’t say for certain that the production available of AoGG available last year (it was “revised” this year I’m sorry to say) reflects what I saw or not. Also, as a community production, some allowances should be made, for example the wardrobe over all wasn’t the greatest and couldn’t be expected to be, but I have to give full credit for this production’s dancing. Dancing is normally the first thing cut in a community production, but they not only left the dancing in, they did a wonderful job with it I’m happy to say.
I should also tell you that I believe there are two types of musicals. I don’t think it’s fair to say that one is superior to the other, but attempting to compare representatives of the two kinds is unfair to both. The first is the type of musical where music just seems to organically appear, like a fruit that ripened when you weren’t looking and there is a wonderful, surprise. The most perfect example of that is The Music Man and “Overture & Rock Island” is most perfect example of this in a perfect production over all (only semi-clunker is “My White Knight” which was wisely cut from the Robert Preston-Shirley Jones movie). The second type is the stylized musical. It can be equally good but is about as much of a literal reflection of life as an abstract painting. The songs and how they are entered into the show are highly stylized. The perfect example of this is My Fair Lady. Most musicals that are any good clearly fit themselves in one group or the other.
Anne and Gilbert presents itself as a sequel to Anne of Green Gables: The Musical. It isn’t. It’s just not. In the first place, the Anne that sings the reprise of “Wondering” at the end of AoGG is a totally different Anne than the one who sings “Averil’s Ideal” at the beginning of A&G. She’s at a different place her life, her maturity and self-awareness are at a different level, and she’s just not the same. For something to be a sequel it needs to neatly follow after. Anne and Gilbert doesn’t.
In addition, while Anne of Green Gables falls in the organic category of musical, Anne and Gilbert definitely belongs in the stylized group. (Frankly what upsets me about the “improvements” that were made this year, I think they wanted it more like this one, which would be like giving a person a transfusion of the wrong kind of blood, not good. I really hope I’m wrong and I hope to sometime see the updated production to see for myself.)
Another difference is in the tone. The tone of AoGG is winsome, that of A&G has a more adult tone and rebellious attitude. I would say AoGG belongs in the same Anne World as the books and the first Kevin Sullivan movie and Anne and Gilbert is an alternative universe (much like the later Sullivan productions). However, on the plus side even though this isn’t the Anne World L.M. Montgomery envisioned, it (unlike those later Sullivan productions) is at least kindred spirits with our Anne World and a world that any Montgomery fan will enjoy. In fact the more you’ve read of Montgomery’s work the more you will enjoy this show which is liberally sprinkled with references and inside jokes. In a way in reminded me of Galaxy Quest (aka the movie that made my brother refuse to go to comedy movies with me anymore) in that while often there were many times when the whole audience laughed, I found myself laughing nearly alone at some obscure Montgomery laden reference much as I had at the Star Trek and general sci fi references in Galaxy Quest. As I told my brother then “it’s not MY fault I got all the jokes nobody else did.”
I think I can best encapsulate Anne and Gilbert is by saying imagine that L.M. Montgomery decided to rewrite Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island as one book and use the sensibility of The Blue Castle instead of the sensibility of Anne, stir in a bunch of wonderful music (“Island Through and Through” just gained a permanent place in my all time favorite songs list) and some crackerjack Celtic dances, do a few strange things with Josie Pye’s character, combine Moody Spurgeon and Jonas MacPhearson and honestly I think some of Gus Pike from Road to Avonlea into one character (it had me worried, but they carry it off – it works out fine, much better than similar attempts in the Anne of Avonlea movie) and Anne and Gilbert is basically what you’d get. They also move Paul Irving into this story, which I think is too bad. Paul has his own important place in Anne-lore and I think he doesn’t really get full justice in this depiction, although they use him quite well to advance the plot. I’d rather seen a totally made up character or one of the characters that belonged at this point in the story fill that niche.
A word of caution about that sensibility. In the Anne books Montgomery is pretty much as chaste as you can get. She cuts away from letters that my grandfather would refer to as “MUSCH” in Anne of Windy Poplars (darn it – I wanted in on at least a little of the romance) and honestly reading Anne’s House of Dreams for the first time in high school, it was only when I re-read the series that I figured out Anne’s “hopes for the spring” meant she was pregnant (I honestly thought she was still talking about her improvements on the garden). That’s how subtle Montgomery is in Anne. She’s less so in The Blue Castle and some of her other works. In Anne and Gilbert one entire song is (coyly) about sex “when you blow the candle out.” A second, basically boils down to being about Gilbert’s need for a cold shower (or at least cold swim) because Anne won’t come around. I don’t think young kids would think anything about or understand the references in these songs, but they are definitely there. (See what I mean about tone.)
Adding to the humorous setting Gilbert has 8 different jobs and they are definitely played for laughs and he comes across as a sort of comic superman. He would be right at home in a 1930s screwball comedy – which is a good thing – think Gilbert as Nick Charles and you’ll get the idea. You have to love this version of Gilbert as much as any other. It was pretty funny to get a reaction song from the students of Avonlea when they find out Gil is going to teach at White Sands instead and a nice beat to play. I’d also like to say that if this version had been filmed, it just might single handedly bring back the argyle sweater vest for men.
So basically while I think they should have called it another tale of Anne and Gilbert, instead of trying to claim the sequel mantle, it was an awesome show.
UPDATE: This is another in my top 20 viewed posts of all time and has created quite a little bit of buzz and commentary. I don’t have a lot of information for an update. Anne and Gilbert still hasn’t been widely produced in the United Sates. I still haven’t gotten back to PEI to see it there. I bought the cast recording and the script book and am regularly caught singing such songs as “Island Through and Through.” While I still have the doubts outlined in my review, I still consider it an awesome show and think you should see it for yourself or at least check out some of the sample tracks from the website.
UPDATED February 20, 2016: I re-read it and added two clarification and updated my signature block.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.