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Freckle-faced heroine: ALSCT brings ‘Anne of Green Gables’ to Bowker Auditorium



Thursday, March 26, 2015
At a recent rehearsal for “Anne of Green Gables,” the cast was rehearsing for the first time at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where the musical is scheduled to open on Thursday.

A group of teenagers performed a song-and-dance-routine and choreographer Mary Ann Holmes tried to get them to coordinate their movements, which, after a holiday break, were a bit rusty.

“It’s ‘step ball change,’ ” she said to the dancers heading toward her onstage. “Pivot, turn, back it up and go.”

Holmes then showed them the movement she was looking for: something more carefree, with a bit more skip, and the kids follow suit.

“It’s supposed to be silly and fun!” she told them. “You don’t look silly or fun.”

On that day, the cast would practice for more than four hours and the dancers would take it outside the auditorium to perfect their routine, while others remained onstage to rehearse different acts, including a funny scene in a general store where one of the characters goes to buy a dress with puff sleeves and another dance routine where girls twirl around with butterfly nets.

It’s all in a day’s work for the cast and crew of the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater (ALSCT), which stages a popular musical every year that often sells out. After last year’s adult-themed production of “Les Miserables,” the theater board chose a more lighthearted family musical this year in “Anne of Green Gables.”

“I think the story has a large appeal to people,” said Sam Karlin, an ALSCT board member. “It’s the story of an orphan who perseveres in a new community. She is a very strong character. We wanted to bring it back to a family-oriented show that could accommodate a lot of kids. There are 48 cast members and 29 of them are kids, from third grade to high school.”

For the musical’s director, Kim Overtree, the show is an opportunity to bring to life one of her most beloved childhood fictional characters. Overtree teaches math and theater at the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut, and has performed in past ALSCT productions, but this is her first time directing. Overtree earned a master’s degree in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory.

“A lot of people remember watching the TV show as kids, but I read the books, which start when Anne is age 11,” she said. “I just completely identified with some of the things that she was going through, which is funny, considering I am from a completely different time period.”

Overtree said the story does an amazing job of illustrating universal experiences of pre-teen and teen girls, no matter when they come of age.

“It seems like it’s from a different time period, but the story line is so current and that is, it’s hard to be a kid, no matter if you are a boy or girl, or what time period you are from.”

A colorful world

The musical, based on the 1908 novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery, tells the story of Anne, an orphan who is brought to a farm to serve as a farmhand to an aging brother and sister who can no longer maintain it themselves. The duo thinks they are adopting a boy to help them with farming, but they end up with Anne, and they are initially displeased. But Anne wins them — and eventually the entire town — over with her charming personality and unusual outlook on life.

“She sees the world in bright colors and sees drama in absolutely everything,” Overtree says. “She sees the world through a lens of optimism and enthusiasm, and always thinks, ‘This could be really great, if it were just like this.’ ”

Overtree said Anne also has a saucy personality, and tells it like it is. In one scene, for instance, a popular boy named Gilbert likens her red hair to a bunch of carrots and Anne responds by breaking a slate over his head. The two eventually become friends.

“It really is the story of a girl coming into her own and just being herself, despite what everyone expects her to be, and that’s really OK,” Overtree said. “It really appeals to young girls, but anyone who knows the story will adore this musical.”

‘A little bit out there’

Overtree said the theater company was lucky to cast Stephanie Craven for the lead role of Anne. Craven, 16, a junior at South Hadley High School, performed as Annie a few years ago in a popular ALSCT production and Chava in Fiddler on the Roof. She has acted as Annie in four productions, including one in New York City.

“She has an incredible stage presence, a spark and a desire for learning how to act well,” Overtree said. “She is someone who will take risks and try things that are a little out there. The character of Anne is a little bit out there and it takes a certain person who is willing to step outside herself and be someone she can’t really be in regular life.”

“I love this character,” Craven said. “She is so dramatic. I felt this character would help me in my everyday life because of her outlook on life. ... There’s never any in-between for her. She’s on top of the world or caught up in little things that might not seem so big to others. She calls her red hair and freckles her ‘lifelong sorrows.’ ”

Craven called the musical “absolutely hilarious,” and encourages teens to check it out.

“Kids of all ages are absolutely going to love it,” she said. “If teens think they are too cool for it, they should think again. It’s really funny.”

Craven said she was inspired by Anne’s ability to maintain a childlike perspective and remain true to herself, despite the pressures of adolescence, an attribute she hopes to hold onto as she continues to navigate her own teenage years.

A labor of love

Like all the ALSCT productions, the play is a labor of love, requiring many volunteer hours from cast, crew and parents of the performers, including the group that designs and builds the sets each season.

David Mullins, president of the ALSCT board, is one of the people who has volunteered to construct sets for many years. This year’s set includes a two-story gabled house, which features Green Gables on one side and is turned, opened and transformed into other buildings in town, including a schoolhouse and general store. A moveable porch also is attached to the building for different scenes.

“We always do big sets that are dynamic,” Mullins said. “Our goal is not to have big stops and long set changes, but have it be more fluid. While action is happening downstage, there might be a set change upstage to keep things flowing.”

Each year, a volunteer crew begins building the sets in two bays of the town’s DPW garage in the beginning of November and completes them by the end of December. Mullins said 95 people volunteered some 1,700 hours building scenery and sewing costumes for the period piece. The set also features a painted backdrop of a pastoral scene of Prince Edward Island, with its signature red dirt roads, where the play takes place.

Mullins said about 40 percent of the cast has never been in a prior show.

“We pride ourselves on being a group that takes new people in every year,” he said. “It’s a real community effort.”

Craven said it’s that community feel, combined with a sense of commitment, that makes the ALSCT her favorite place to perform, even after playing Annie in the Big Apple.

“Everyone here is so kind,” she said. “Everyone takes it seriously and they are all working together toward the same thing: to put on a great production.”

Performances at Bowker Auditorium at UMass are Jan. 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 18, 24 and 25 at 2 p.m.

General admission tickets for the Jan. 15 performance cost $12; $10 for children 12 and under. For all other dates, reserved seating tickets cost $20; $16 for students and seniors; $10 for children 12 and under. To reserve, visit www.alsct.org, call 259-3065 or visit the LSSE office at the Bangs Community Center, 70 Boltwood Walk in Amherst.