The thousands of angry Orange Countians who picketed or emailed the Chance Theater in outraged protest over Jerry Springer: The Opera, the company’s recently Ovation Awarded Best Intimate Theatre Musical, will have to look elsewhere this holiday season for a show to get their knickers in a twist over, or at least not on the nights or afternoons that Anne Of Green Gables is being performed.

Yes, the princess of perk (also known as Anne Shirley) is back in Anaheim Hills—in a return visit to the Chance that is certain to delight those who made the children’s musical such a smash hit in 2007 and 2008.

Based on the first and most famous of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s eight Anne Shirley books, this sugar-sweet adaptation by Joseph Robinette and Evelyn D. Swenson adds songs old and new (none of the latter particularly memorable) to the much loved tale of a chatterbox orphan with carrot-red hair, mistakenly sent to live with elderly unmarried siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, Marilla having specifically ordered a boy to help with farm work. Over the course of Anne Of Green Gable’s two kids-friendly acts, Anne develops an instant antipathy for local hottie Gilbert Blythe, a dislike that we know won’t last for long; a friendship with a properly brought up “nice girl” named Diana Barry (though that gets temporarily interrupted by Diana’s parents’ objections to Anne’s “bad girl” behavior); and an ultimately loving relationship with her initially wary adoptive parents.

Unlike the Disney musicals that have become some of Broadway’s biggest hits in recent decades, Anne of Green Gables does not try very hard to appeal to audiences outside its 13-and-under female demographic. Adults will not find the kind of “sails over the heads of children” humor that makes Beauty And The Beast seem the height of sophistication by comparison. And most young boys will probably find Anne’s adventures too girlish for their tastes. Hanna Montana fans, however, will find themselves in Tween Girl Heaven.

It’s hard to imagine a Chance production of Anne Of Green Gables without its charming star Jessie McLean, returning for yet another go-round as the spunky Anne. With her non-stop chattering about her unfortunate red hair and dull name (“Call me Cordelia, or at least spell Anne with an -e.”), it’s easy to see why the carrot-topped orphan alienates certain residents of Avonlea…at first. But the winning McClean makes it amply clear how the precocious moppet ends up winning over even the grouchiest hearts.

Returning from last spring’s The Boy In The Bathroom is the wonderful Marina Coffee as the acerbic but warm-hearted as Marilla and William Crisp channels Walter Brennan in his folksy turn as Matthew. Kristin Danielson-Jardine makes for the most perfectly perfect a best friend any orphan girl could dream of, whether imitating the “elegant” talk of the snooty rich or getting sloshed on berry wine that Anne has mistaken for cherry cordial. Newcomer Joseph Mayers is as handsome and plucky a boy next door as any girl—orphan or otherwise—could dream of.

Chance favorite Sherry Domerego gets the plum dual role assignment of portraying busybody Rachel Lynde and Diana’s grouchy Aunt Josephine, both of whom fall victim to Anne’s charms—and she is funny indeed. Amy Bolton also amuses in four (count’em) roles, including Anne’s spinster schoolteacher and the town pastor’s wife, the latter possessing a laugh to inspire a desire for immediate strangulation. Chris Hixson excels in four diverse roles as well, and musical director Bill Strongin (who provides the excellent piano accompaniment for the show’s dozen and a half songs) plays three parts, including French Professor Engerrand, who doesn’t get nearly enough stage time for Strongin to show off as outrageously funny an accent français as I’ve heard.

Shannon Cudd, Jared Ryan Kaitz, Andrea Paquin, and Brock F. Powell impress as Anne’s classmates, and as does Emma Hay as Diana’s precocious little sister Minnie May.

Casey Long once again directs Anne Of Green Gables with an obvious affection for the material and Kelly Todd returns to choreograph several bouncy dance numbers, including the sprightly “Charlottetown Rag.” Chance Theater gem Masako Tobaru has designed and lit the production’s simple but effective set, one which features a terrific projection design by Long, who also supervised the musical’s first rate sound design. Erika C. Miller again proves herself an expert costumer with her sumptuous designs.  Teodora I.B. Ramos is stage manager.

Though audience members outside Anne Of Green Gable’s demographic may find their interest waning soon after the spunky orphan’s arrival at the Cuthberts, young girls (along with young-at-heart moms and grandmoms) will “Shirley” cheer Anne Shirley’s return to the Chance just in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2011
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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