While “Anne and Gilbert” begins pleasantly enough, the opening scenes give little warning it will become a standard on the Canadian musical theater scene. Yet that seems likely to happen with this utterly charming show. A sequel to Canada’s longest-running and most beloved musical, “Anne of Green Gables,” which has been a mainstay of Prince Edward Island’s Charlottetown Festival since 1965, “Anne and Gilbert,” like its predecessor, is based on the books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
The original (which featured music by Norman Campbell and book by Don Harron) tells the story of how the feisty orphan, Anne Shirley, came to Avonlea and takes her through her schooldays. New installment from Bob Johnston, Nancy White and Jeff Hochhauser continues the story of her life and her match with high school academic rival Gilbert.
The inevitability of their love is clear to all the residents of Avonlea, Gilbert (Adrian Marchuk) and the audience, long before the stubborn Anne (Ash-leigh Ireland) accepts her destiny. But knowing where “Anne and Gilbert” is going is unimportant.
The whole show is an invitation to sit back and sink into a small island village in the early 20th century.
Both script and score form a love song to a way of life that has a gentleness — despite moments of biting wit and broad comedy — true to L.M. Montgom-ery and Prince Edward Island. This, despite the fact that the inspiration for the musical and book came from New Yorker Hochhauser.
The variety of musical numbers in the show is a joy in itself. From a romantic waltz (“Carried Away by Love”) to maritime fiddle tunes and step-dancing (“You’re Island Through and Through”) and comic numbers (“You’re Never Safe From Surprises ’til You’re Dead,” the bubbly “Seesaw Girl”), the score covers a wide gamut of styles, harking back to the period of the show’s setting and reaching forward to the contemporary idiom.
In this first off-island production since the show — which was 10 years in development — was completed in 2005, director Greg Wanless and musical director Sandy Thorburn recreate a world of charm that brings out the best in the material. Inspired choreography from Kiri-Lyn Muir enhances the light mood and the cleverly designed, though perhaps too elaborate, set pieces from John C. Dinning maintain the flow of the 23 songs and 28 scenes.
Strong female characters dominate the script and the stage — even if attention is frequently on the handsome, gallant Gilbert (excellently portrayed by Marchuk). As well as the fine performance from Ireland in the lead role, we are treated to the warmth of Marisa McIntyre as Diana Barry, the mischievous-ness of Ashley Taylor as Phillippa and the bad-girl toughness of Ellen Furey as Josie Pye.
Equally strong are the key women of the older generation, Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert (a solid and beautifully sung performance from Val-erie Hawkins) and the gossipy Rachel Lynde (played with obvious enjoyment by Marcia Tratt).
Expect to see the delightful “Anne and Gilbert” taking its place alongside “Anne of Green Gables” for many years to come at the Charlottetown Fesival.