A redheaded spitfire takes center stage at Sonoma Arts Live, but it’s not Annie this time, with her big plans for tomorrow. Or Pippi Longstocking, with her superhuman strength. It’s Anne, of Green Gables, the other little orphan with pluck.
Her story’s been told a hundred different ways: in a silent film, and a black and white “talkie,” as a serialized radio drama, and now — by Sonoma Arts Live — as a musical. Based on the 1908 book by Lucy Montgomery, “Anne of Green Gables” is iconic. The book has sold over 50 million copies in 36 languages since its publication in 1908.
Staying true to the original was important for director Libby Oberlin. “There are a few versions of this play, but this one’s my favorite. Fans of the novel are going to love this adaptation. It’s got verbatim lines from the book and the music is beautiful,” Oberlin said.
Selected as part of the programming for Sonoma Arts Live’s 2018 theme, A Toast to the Classics, “Anne of Green Gables” is set in a time period long gone: think knickers and pinafores and old-fashioned propriety.
Yet the story feels timeless, too.
Anne is 11 when the audience meets her, and she’s all alone in the world. When she’s sent to live at the remote farm of elderly siblings Maria and Matthew Cuthberts, her arrival is met with disappointment. The Cuthberts had requested a male adoptee, someone hearty and strong enough to help with farm chores. But Anne soon wins the two over with her dreamy charm, carried away as she is by romance and feeling. She gives love without conditions, and eventually is loved in return.
The production involves an elaborate set designed by Carl Jordan, who opted to build a representational facsimile of the Green Gables farmhouse. It’s two stories tall and ringed by a stone wall. “Rather than a suggested house, Carl built a beautifully earnest country setting,” Oberlin said.
And the costumes are true to the original idea, too. Designed by Janis Snyder, many were sewn by participants of Eric Jackson’s fiber arts program at the Sonoma Community Center and authentically reflect the time period in which the story is set. “The Community Center has a partnership with Sonoma Arts Live where they hold a few classes and produce some element of each show. For ‘Anne’ they created knickers and pinafores, highnecks and long dresses. It’s really fun that so many hands are part of this,” Oberlin said.
Staging a musical is a special theatrical challenge, one that Oberlin — who runs the Theater School youth acting academy, and an actress herself — feels comfortable tackling. “We use tracks for this show, and it’s a different set of skills to learn to sing with tracks,” Oberlin said. “With a live orchestra, they listen to what’s going on onstage and react. Say an actor forgets a line. The song should start a beat later or sooner because of what’s happening onstage. That doesn’t happen with tracks.”
The cast of 13 is well-prepared, though. They’ve been rehearsing for weeks and opened Thursday to an appreciative crowd. Melody Payne, of Vacaville, plays the titular role, and was an easy choice for Oberlin. “The second she walked in I knew it was going to be her,” Oberlin said. “She just nailed it. Thirty people auditioned in total, because for people who know this story, it’s kind of a bucket list show. People feel really deeply about this story. It’s got such classic characters and plot.”
'Anne of Green Gables'
When: Nov. 29 to Dec. 9
Where: Sonoma Community Center