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COLM MAGNER: Anne kind of talent you can't take your eyes off

Published on July 4, 2017

AJ Bridel plays Anne in Anne of Green Gables-The Musical™ at the Confederation Centre.

©THE GUARDIAN/Special to The Guardian by Louise Vessey

There's a character in literature and lore called The Green Man, whose female equivalent would likely be Sheela-na-Gig.

They embody the life force, the wild side of human nature. Wildness also happens to be the most compelling trait in a character in Canadian literature known as Anne Shirley.

If you thought these three were merely fictional beings, then you need to get down to the Confederation Centre to see the performance of a young woman named AJ Bridel, whose performance of Anne in Anne of Green Gables-The Musical is a lesson in what talent and generosity can do in a theatre. It’s the kind of talent you can't take your eyes off of because, like all real acting, it’s a kind of controlled possession.  

This production is literally overflowing with talent – George Masswohl’s Matthew is a perfect gentle giant; Susan Henley’s Marilla is a graceful soul, full of nuance; Aaron Hastelow has real presence as Gilbert; Katie Kerr gets a well-deserved round for her drunken Diana; and, in fact, the good performances are too numerous to mention.

So what happened since last year? Why the turnaround? Well performers can shine only when guided by careful direction. Director Adam Brazier, through very hard work, succeeds in proving that this story of an orphaned girl who “comes from away” onto a charming, but sometimes rather parochial, Island is still relevant (and it turns out, current).

While there have been improvements to the set (the simple use of flats and a good lighting designer create intimacy in a large space), this year’s success is more due to the fact that there is a cohesive vision, and small moments have been given the care they deserve. The brief funeral scene after the death of Matthew, barely lit and imbued with the sound of rain, was one of a number of moments which showed a maturing director confident enough to use silence as it needs to be used in the creation of good theatre.

Robin Calvert’s imaginative choreography breathes new life into many musical numbers, but more vital and integral to my excitement about this particular production is that there are moments that are almost slightly, dare I say, subversive. I’m sure I saw a few Green Men onstage on opening night, and Bridel’s Anne is not merely bright and mischievous, she’s a little dangerous, imbued with the kind of energy that small-minded men find frightening in women. That's what makes her irresistible, and that's why it's easy to believe Gilbert's passion for her. Her Anne also changes and matures throughout the performance.

Act 2 could still use some editing. It's simply not crafted as well as Act 1 and includes subplot that would not be missed. But what I found most surprising is that this is the same musical score I criticized last year. How could that be? Well, the addition of a couple of real humans playing instruments in the orchestra pit is likely part of the reason the score sounds “new” (was that a real horn I felt tingle in my belly?); Bob Foster’s musical direction and the playing of the orchestra adds another layer of depth; and I believe there have been changes in approach. But why truly did it sound so much better?

Well, it's because when everything begins to cohere, the entire production begins to resonate and takes on a life if its own. At the centre of this particular experience is Bridel as Anne – a momentarily green-haired girl who lights a little wildfire in this theatre that you really shouldn't miss.

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Colm Magner, who is a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, has worked as a playwright, actor, director and teacher for more than 30 years. His column, In the Wings, will appear regularly during the summer. To reach Colm, email inthewings61@gmail.com or find him at Twitter.com/IntheWings61