Anne Shirley sees everything in an extraordinary light. Although the plucky orphan girl with bright red braids comes to Avonlea by mistake, she embraces the wonderful possibilities of her new life by bursting into song, charming her new family and embarking on many adventures. Audiences can experience her exuberant perspective firsthand in Anne of Green Gables, presented by Children's Theater of Madison (through Oct. 27 at Overture Center's Playhouse). Anne weaves together a lovely classic story, a hummable score (performed live by three costumed musicians), a gorgeous and ingenious set (designed by Christopher Dunham), and a topnotch ensemble cast led by a truly remarkable young performer, Kailey Boyle.
Like other inspirational young heroines, Anne faces a dozen large and small crises in the play, everything from finding a new best friend and enduring teasing about her red hair from a neighbor boy, to helping nurse a sick child back to health and facing a family tragedy. Over the course of the story, Anne transforms from a wide-eyed little girl with a penchant for the dramatic, to a capable, poised young woman ready to take on adult responsibilities.
Anne's success depends on the lead actress and happily, Boyle is a sheer delight in the role. Featured in virtually every scene and carrying the bulk of the musical numbers, she leads the audience on her journey from spunky orphan to thoughtful, charming young lady. Possessing a light, clear singing voice, a wildly expressive face, and a natural ease in the spotlight, Boyle portrays Anne's contagious energy perfectly.
Boyle is matched nicely with Chris Geise, who plays Gilbert, the boy next door. Transforming from a schoolyard pest to a suitor, Geise also charms with his earnest portrayal. In a particularly enchanting scene, Gilbert sings about his fascination with Anne, dancing across the schoolroom with the energy of youth and infatuation.
Also strong is Mark Huismann as Matthew, the aging farmer who had asked for an orphan boy to help him with the chores at Green Gables. His strong affection for his new family member anchors the play. When he presents Anne with a beautiful gift in the second act, it is a truly magical moment.
"Magic" permeates the production. A chorus of young actors not only fills the seats in the schoolhouse scenes, but they listen to gossip on tin can telephones, turn the wheels on the carriage, produce the sound effects of trotting horses and rainstorms, and change the seasons by scattering leaves and snow on stage. The imaginative choreography looks spontaneous and joyful, and the performers carry it off with precision and confidence.
Although the stage can feel a bit claustrophobic at times, filled with the majority of the cast watching each scene and jumping in to bring the environment to life, the device also reinforces the feeling of an outsider coming to a small town where everyone knows everyone else.
Masterfully directed by Jessica Lanius, Anne of Green Gables is a marvelous production for plucky young girls, the families who know them, and grownups who used to be one of them.