The difference between two feisty, red-haired orphan girls is more than an "i" in their first name. Anne Shirley might bear a passing resemblance to the young heroine of "Annie." But in this pop-up book of a show, precociousness becomes unnerving as the delicacy of the classic children's book heroine gets lost in a sugar rush of sweetness, spunk and sentimentality.
The difference between two feisty, red-haired orphan girls is more than an “i” in their first name. Anne Shirley, the young teenager of the musical based on L.M. Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables,” might bear a passing resemblance to the young heroine of “Annie.” But in this pop-up book of a show, precociousness becomes unnerving as the delicacy of the classic children’s book heroine gets lost in a sugar rush of sweetness, spunk and sentimentality.The show, which has had a 41-year summer run at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island, where the book is set, returns to the U.S. market for the first time since the early 1970s with a one-week run in New Haven. It then heads back north to hibernate until it reopens as the popular tourist attraction there. Trouble is, on legit stage here it still feels like a theme park operation — make that an outdoor theme park operation — with staggeringly outsized perfs, basic production elements and generic music. As in the book (and the 1934 film and the lovely ’80s miniseries starring Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth), story centers on elderly brother and sister the Cuthberts (Michael Fletcher and Judy Marshak) adopting a child to help with the farm. But instead of a boy, they get an outspoken, intelligent and dazzlingly imaginative girl who brings life into the world of the lonely couple as well as the staid Canadian community. Narrative is loose, filled with simple, homespun anecdotal episodes of going to school, meeting new friends, competing for a scholastic honor, finding a beau and losing a loved one. Story’s original charm and heart are in the details, the nuances and the things left unsaid. But in this production, there’s not an emotion or a character trait that isn’t telegraphed to the balcony — and beyond. Gossipy neighbors make “The Music Man’s” pick-a-little-talk-a-little women look like nuns. Townsfolk and schoolchildren turn into the most cartoony of characters. And show’s young heroine Anne (Jennifer Toulmin) could be the poster child for Ritalin. Toulmin, like the others in the cast who play the town’s “children,” is an adult playing “young.” She gives a hyperactive perf with little subtlety, and while much of the mugging may play well to bored auds, it dishonors the story and can’t be taken seriously. In the book, beneath Anne’s confidence lie a young girl’s fears; behind her resilience is a girl who hadn’t shared her heart; and in her unique flights of literate, vocabulary-rich fancy is an intelligence that transcends the community in which she lives. Toulmin has a strong soprano, and the voices in the production are uniformly assured. So are the many bits of business, polished no doubt after so many summers in the saddle. Freshness and spontaneity are not the adjectives that spring to mind in this production. Fletcher, too, has a big, bold voice that doesn’t always suit the mild-mannered Mathew Cuthbert. Standout perf is Marshak’s Marilla, who keeps the integrity of her character intact with an honest and centered interpretation. Also fine are Sean Hauk as Anne’s beleaguered beau Gilbert Blythe and Heidi Ford as Anne’s young friend Diana Song melodies are simple and sometimes catchy, but the lyrics ache from the ordinary. (“Look all around you/Life will astound you” or “I implore her/I adore her.”) The problem is that many of the songs don’t come out of the emotions of a scene or what’s in the heart of a character, but are simply scene-setters for dances or interludes to cover the limited scenery changes. The songs merely signal events (going back to school, a charity drive, the big picnic) or state exposition. (“Where Is Matthew Going?” “Where’d Marilla Come From?”) One song with a teacher imploring her students to “Open the Window” inexplicably swings in a way surely unknown in 1881 Canada. The production features a decent sized cast (24) and a hefty orchestra (19), but design elements are on the thin side, with basic sets and folk-art-decorated flats and flies. Dancing is your basic tumbling, high-kicking, arms-akimbo choreography. At nearly three hours, the production’s simple story far outlives the welcome of even the most devoted “Anne” fan.