Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bend in the Road

Watching Bend in the Road, a new musical based on Anne of Green Gables, I so much wished that as a child I had read the Lucy Maud Montgomery novel from which it is drawn. I fell in love with this story of Anne Shirley, an orphan who finds a home on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1896.

A selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival's (NYMF) 2013 Next Link Project, the entire run sold out so quickly that NYMF added a performance. This is obviously a story cherished by many people, and it has been lovingly recreated by a cast of 14 under the direction of Benjamin Endsley Klein, who directed Ann last season on Broadway.

Alison Woods (left in photo), making her New York stage debut, is delightful as the high-spirited red-haired orphan who is adopted by middle-aged siblings Marilla (Anne Kanengeiser) and Matthew Cuthbert (Martin Vidnovic). (It seems plucky, red-haired orphans are good subjects for musicals.)

In the opening number, “A Home for Me,” Anne arrives by train from Nova Scotia to her new town bursting with joy at finally reaching “a place where you’re needed, a home.” She has already become well-known to her fellow passengers with her nonstop talking and soon begins charming -- or annoying -- the town folks with her exuberance. Nick Potenzieri, associate director/musical staging, captures this well as all bustle about before the station.

When Matthew arrives in his horse and buggy, he is surprised to fine a girl. He and his sister had hoped for a boy to help with their farm. But as you will suspect, Anne’s intelligent and vivacious spirit wins over the Cuthberts and everyone else in town, including the nosy town gossip, Mrs. Rachel Lynde (Maureen Silliman).

Right from the start Anne, who has a vivid imagination as well as a temper, knows she’s where she was meant to be.

“It’s the first thing I’ve seen that couldn’t be improved by my imagination,” she declares of Prince Edward Island.

In no time she finds a best friend in Diana Berry (Whitney Winfield, right), a neighbor, and they employ their imaginations to conjure up danger and treasures as they walk through the woods together to school. “We’ll be kindred spirits till the end of time,” they promise.

Anne’s impulsiveness gets her into more than a little trouble, but as she tells Marilla, “I never make the same mistake twice.”

To which Marilla replies: “I don’t know that’s much benefit as you’re always making new ones.” 

Matthew explains to her in “Trouble is Trouble” how to make the best of difficulties. “To get through the darkness, there’s only one route. Face what’s really there, then walk yourself out.”

The songs (lyrics by Benita Scheckel and Michael Upward; music by Upward) offer that kind of welcome simplicity and optimism and serve the storytelling well. (Scheckel also wrote the book.) Andrew Gerle directs the five-piece orchestra.

Set designer Lauren Helpern convincingly creates Anne’s world with just a few props and Andrew Lazarow’s video and projection designs. David Kaley captures the period in his charming costumes. Excellent work also by Joe E. Silver with his lighting.

Since publication, Anne of Green Gables has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into more than 20 languages. The author also produced numerous best-selling sequels. The original book is taught to students around the world.

 Bend in the Road (the title refers to changes one must face in life) received unanimous rave reviews in its 2012 premiere at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse. It recently played for six performances at PTC Performance Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the largest annual musical theatre event in the world, which presents 30 productions each summer in the heart of the Theatre District, along with an array of readings, concerts, and other special events. It’s been called the Sundance of Musical Theatre and is a highlight of summer for many of us.

The young woman sitting next to me for Bend was spellbound throughout the first act. When we talked at intermission, she said she had read the book as a girl and seen a PBS mini-series of it. She had forgotten many of the details, but said they were coming back to her as she watched. She thought the musical version was wonderful. And so did I.          

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