The first minutes of a musical tend to set the tone. After a few songs or dialogue scenes, you'll know if the rest of it is going to be good. And you'll know if it's going to be bad.
Thankfully, that wasn't the case with "Anne of Green Gables."
The second show of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's 60th anniversary season at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, and the first show to graduate to that stage from new musical series The Pitch, "Anne of Green Gables" started in a tangle. It immediately launched into songs so busy with overlapping vocals by undermicrophoned ensemble members that it was tough to discern the lyrics, let alone the story. Having never read Lucy Montgomery's novel, that might have been more of a hangup for me than most. But because Thursday's opening night marked the world premiere of Matt Vinson and Matte O'Brien's adaptation, it felt like most of the audience was warily holding its breath for those first few minutes, too. Their applause was only as polite as it needed to be.
Then we met Anne. Vinson and O'Brien couldn't have found a better pioneer for their red-haired lead than Mckenzie Custin, whose spirit and sincerity makes the 1908 orphan feel right at home in 2018. The more she talked, the more the show started to sing. There were cathartic cheers when she rebuked a "chicken-livered" teacher (Alan Ariano) for his complicity in the male patriarchy. There was sniffly silence when she latched onto the few people she let into her heart with bear hugs. And there was pure awe when she roared through the numbers that pulled the audience into her imagination, recalling the horror of the asylum she called home and cursing the boy (Chris McCarrell) who made the mistake of referring to her as "Carrots." She's a thoroughly modern Anne Shirley.
Vinson and O'Brien further bring out the contemporary streak in Montgomery's novel through Anne's relationships with the people of the rustic Canadian town of Avonlea. The other reason her first scene is so winning is her adoptive father, Matthew Cuthbert (D.C. Anderson). The farmer responds to Anne's big words with gentle bemusement, quickly finding a humorous chemistry with her that also warms the heart. His sister, Marilla (Nancy Anderson), forces Anne to work a little harder for her affection, but that just raises the emotional reward when she rushes to her adoptive daughter's defense for the first time. And as Anne's best friend, Diana, Michelle Veintimilla effortlessly bounces between comic relief as Anne's intellectual inferior and social commentary as her "traditional" gender counterpart. Anne's path leads to college and Diana's to the altar, but Vinson and O'Brien let the characters navigate, not some desire to preach, so their destinations are equally satisfying.
AUBURN — Thursday at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival…
However, the playwrights and director Jenn Thompson do have a subtle hand on the wheel of Anne's first interactions with Diana. As the girls discuss becoming "bosom friends," their postures are vulnerable, their pecks on each other's cheeks meaningful. The scenes tease out a popular theory about Montgomery's text: Anne is bisexual. And later, when role model teacher Miss Stacy (Angela Travino) meets Cuthbert family friend and town gossip Rachel (Dawn L. Troupe), the show continues flirting with same-sex romance through a carefully deployed — and hilarious — horticulture metaphor. But these scenes don't outwardly veer from their source material. They simply mine its feminist energy, and give all but the densest audiences something to read between the lines.
Miss Stacy's scenes would be more effective if Travino didn't also portray Diana's puritanical mother. Likewise, right after Ariano's teacher punishes Anne for thwacking McCarrell's Gilbert, the actor assumes the role of the boy's father. These disorienting casting decisions are among the show's few faults. Under musical director Amanda Morton, the band realizes the folk rock soundtrack with pastoral texture and muscle, and both are accentuated by the delightfully zippy choreography of Jen Jancuska. As can be expected of a new musical, some songs struggle to be remembered, others to add much of significance to the story. But between its lively performances and its contemporary touches, Vinson and O'Brien's "Anne of Green Gables" is nothing if not memorable and significant.