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After half a century, Prince Edward Island’s musical tradition takes a break

Prince Edward Island’s best-known figure, Anne Shirley, is a fictional character. But that’s not stopping tourists from all over the world, and Japan in particular, from heading to Cavendish to visit Green Gables, the farm that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel about the sassy town orphan. ‘Avonlea, itself another fiction.

And since 1965, except during a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, most of those tourists have attended performances of “Anne of Green Gables — The Musical” at the Confederation Center of the Arts in Charlottetown.

But now, anyone planning to incorporate the show into a hike to pay homage to red-haired Anne will have to do some extra planning. After 57 years, the center decided that the musical would be performed every two years rather than once a year.

The play was the first production staged at the center, and the decision to discontinue its long run was one of many things that emerged from thinking about the pandemic, Adam Brazier, artistic director of arts at the stage at the Confederation Centre.

It’s a change that Mr. Brazier, whose family has a long history on the island, accepted with some trepidation.

I suffer from being an absolute people pleaser, and it was such a significant systemic cultural shift,” Mr. Brazier said. “The unknown always breeds uncertainty and fear. I have to admit that it absolutely exists.

But for Mr. Brazier, an “Anne” biennial will allow the theater, which currently only offers two shows per season, to “preserve the legacy” of “Anne” herself.

As he had expected, there was an immediate reaction on and off the island when the change was announced.

In a letter published by Saltwire, an online collective of Atlantic Canadian newspapers, Paul Smitz of Brookvale, Prince Edward Island, said the decision was “ridiculous” and called for Ms. Brazier as well as that of the general manager of the art centre. .

“This has huge implications for tourism,” Mr. Smitz wrote.

Kathy and Dino DelGaudio of Vero Beach, Fla., who own a seasonal home on the island, wrote to say they attended the production every summer except during the pandemic-related border closure during of the last two decades. They too said they were appalled.

“Anne represents the essence of PEI to us and puts PEI on the world map,” the couple wrote. “Big mistake, friends.”

But one of the new projects Mr. Brazier has taken on is, well, more Anne. The theater will create a musical version of “Anne’s Cradle: The Life and Works of Hanako Muraoka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables.”

During the 1930s, Loretta Shaw, a Canadian missionary, gave Mrs. Muraoka a copy of Mrs. Montgomery’s book, which Mrs. Muraoka later translated, along with most of the Canadian author’s other works. Japan’s fascination with Anne grew after 1953, however, when the translation, titled “Red-Haired Anne”, was included in the Japanese school curriculum.

(Michael B. Pass, PhD student at the University of Ottawa, has published a fascinating history and analysis of Japan’s relationship with Anne.)

Interest in the various stories of Anne in Canada, of course, has been largely driven by television adaptations. The most recent, known simply as “Anne” when it first aired on CBC and then “Anne With an E” for release on Netflix, took a darker take on the character story.

But it’s not just television. Catherine Hong wrote for The New York Times Book Review about the proliferation of book adaptations of the spunky redhead story. They include “Anne of Greenville” by Mariko Tamaki. Ms. Hong describes this book as “more of a playful riff than a narrative – in which Anne is the half-Japanese, disco-loving, ‘delusional queer’ adoptive daughter of two mothers”. She adds: “After the family moves to the conservative small town of Greenville, Anne encounters a creepy nativist clique and a thorny love triangle involving two girls.”

[Read: Anne of Everywhere]

The Charlottetown musical production was partly written by Don Harron, best remembered for his comedic performances as Charlie Farquharson, a grizzled Ontario philosopher-farmer. Mr. Brazier told me that the production had undergone many revisions and modifications over the last half century.

In 1971, longtime Times theater critic Clive Barnes gave a largely positive, if somewhat condescending, review of a New York production of the musical.

“Simple, innocent and Canadian, this is the kind of show that will appeal most to unsuspecting hearts – if they still go to the theater these days,” he wrote.

With a cast of 26 actors and 14 musicians, Anne is a large and expensive production. But Mr Brazier said giving him a break every two years was not intended to save money and theater budgets had not been cut.

And Mr. Brazier said the theater was committed to preserving what he called “a masterpiece of 1960s musical theatre.”

He added, “We cherish this show and everything about it. I believe you can learn everything you need to know about musical theater with “Anne of Green Gables – The Musical”.

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Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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