Review: Pollyanna The Musical

by Lynn on December 13, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton, Ont. Playing until Dec. 23, 2023.

www.theatreaquarius.org

Book and lyrics by Steven Gallagher

Based on the novel by Eleanor H. Porter

Music by Linda Barnett

Directed by Robert McQueen

Supervising music direction and orchestrations by Mark Camilleri

Choreography by Julie Tomaino

Set and costumes by Cory Sincennes

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Miles Avery

Adam Brazier

Joel Cumber

Peter Fernandes

Athan Giazitzidis

Sofie Greenspoon

Arinea Hermans

Linda Kash

Fin Kirk

Ha’Keena Maneso

Alexa Meixner

Charlotte Moore

Keith Savage

Jessica Sherman

Adam Stevenson

Henry Tiller

Shaadee Vahdat

Kelsey Verzotti

Emily Watt

Jenny Weisz

Pollyanna The Musical is about the power of goodness, finding optimism when you least expect it and changing the world through it. This world premiere is buoyant, lively and Pollyanna’s cheerfulness, no matter what, is infectious.

NOTE: Since Eleanor H. Porter’s children’s novel, “Pollyanna” was first published in 1913 it has become hugely successful, selling over one million copies. However, to be called a “Pollyanna” is to be considered ‘blindly optimistic’ to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. Hardly a compliment. That’s why the book and now this musical is a revelation of nuance, subtext and depth.

The Story. At the beginning of the story, Pollyanna Whittier is 11 years old and an orphan. She is going to live with her Aunt Polly Harrington (her Mother Jennie’s sister) in Beldingville, Vermont.

Pollyanna is cheerful, always sees the good in a situation no matter how dire and tries to pass on that goodness to others. Her Aunt Polly is dour, rigidly proper and unsmiling. She takes in Pollyanna out of duty.  When Pollyanna arrives she begins to charm the townsfolk, much to the horror of her proper Aunt. Slowly but surely Pollyanna’s good nature begins to have an effect on everybody, including her Aunt Polly.

The Production. We meet Polly Harrington (Jessica Sherman) at the top of the production. She is a prim, self-contained woman who is constantly concerned about propriety and doing her duty. Her clothes are respectable, subdued in colour, not flashy and give the impression of Polly being buttoned up. (Kudos to costume designer, Cory Sincennes). Polly lives according to a set time for getting up in the morning, for eating meals and for doing chores. There is little variation in her routine until her niece Pollyanna, arrives.  

Polly feels it is her duty to take in the child, much as Polly does not want to. Polly has resented her sister for ‘abandoning’ her in this town. Years before both sisters planned on moving away and living their lives travelling and seeking adventure. Then Jennie met and fell in love with a man and went off to marry him, leaving Polly in that town. Her dreams dashed. Polly has carried that resentment all those years.

Jessica Sherman, as Aunt Polly, has that ram-rod straight-backed demeanor that sends out warning signals to anyone who dares to get close to her. Sherman sings in a beautiful clear voice, full of bottled emotion. But over time, living with that irrepressible spirit known as Pollyanna, Aunt Polly slowly, begins to soften. Her clothes become brighter in colour. There are stylish but tasteful flourishes. She has a long journey to finally say “I love you” to Pollyanna.

Linda Barnett (music) and Steven Gallagher (lyrics) give Pollyanna (Emily Watt) a beautiful song at the top of the production that sets up Pollyanna’s philosophy of life. And director Robert McQueen establishes it beautifully. Pollyanna sits on a bench at the train station waiting to be picked up. She sings about how her mother carefully taught her to find the good in people and situations. She even makes a game of it. She remembers those life lessons as a way to hold her mother close. Robert McQueen has Pollyanna sit still on that bench, no one else is in the scene, our attention is focused only on her. Emily Watt as Pollyanna gives a performance that is assured, committed and beautifully sung and acted. Emily Watt is so accomplished in the role one has to shake one’s head in wonder: “how old is this kid?” This kid is in fact 11. Astonishing.

Director Robert McQueen has been meticulous in his casting of the production. The townsfolk of Beldingville are refreshing because they look like real people of a town and not people from ‘central casting. They are all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and attitudes. While Pollyanna is ‘at sea’ about what will happen in this new town she sets about bolstering herself by remembering her mother’s advice. She is always cheerful to her unsmiling  aunt and to whomever she meets.

She hears that Mrs. Snow (played wonderfully by Linda Kash, as prickly, ill-tempered and frustrated) is a shut-in, bedridden, irritable and hates opening the curtains to her room, so naturally Pollyanna visits her bringing an assortment of meat pies. And Pollyanna keeps visiting Mrs. Show until Pollyanna’s kindness and good nature melts Mrs. Snow’s heart.

Pollyanna does the same for Mr. Pendelton (Adam Brazier), also an irritated man who does not like being bothered by children etc. made worse because he injured his left leg (note: I believe the cane should be in Pendelton’s right hand and not the left to alleviate the pressure on the injured leg). Adam Brazier gives a lovely performance as Mr. Pendelton—a man wounded by disappointment in love and life. Pollyanna sees through that too.  

There is a great sweep to Pollyanna The Musical. The music and lyrics establish character, attitude and tone. Robert McQueen and his gifted choreographer, Julie Tomaino,  establish a growing exuberance of the characters and townsfolk as they change from being solitary and insulated to being considerate of others and communal, all because of Pollyanna.

Some might have called the story of “Pollyanna” ‘saccharine.’ That would be incorrect. Saccharine is an artificial sweetener made of chemicals that are not good for you. “Pollyanna” is about the power of goodness to change people and situations; to give people the resolve to carry on under depressing circumstances, to be better and not just because it’s one’s duty. Pollyanna The Musical will change your mind about what you think the story is. And then you will read the book. And then you might see the musical again because it’s pure joy.

I do have some concerns and I hope constructive suggestions to strengthen the piece as it undergoes further development for future productions:

  • The balance of the sound of musicals is a frequent concern. The band is covered in this production and Mark Camilleri is a find conductor. But at times it sounda as if the band is coming close to overpowering the singers. Perhaps more attention to the balance is in order.
  • The characters of Widow Benton (an exuberantly vocal Charlotte Moore) and Mrs. Snow (played by Linda Kash as wonderfully prickly and ill-tempered) seem too similar in nature. It’s Mrs. Snow who has the transformation from her behaviour and situation and should be the focus of the two characters. I think the part of Widow Benton should be rethought (not cut, because Charlotte Moore is so useful in the show. And while I realize she is the understudy for Mrs. Snow, that doesn’t mean her part should be so similar in nature to Mrs. Snow.)
  • The song “Lucky Day” takes place in Miss Pearl’s dress shop. Aunt Polly is taking Pollyanna there for some new clothes (a small step in Aunt Polly’s softening). The shop staff are abuzz with excitement and clothes and coats are brought out for Pollyanna to try on. But Mrs. Snow and Millie, Mrs. Snow’s daughter, are also there for clothes (a large step in Mrs. Snow’s softening). The scene seems too cluttered with both Pollyanna and Millie ‘transforming.’ Millie is already a woman inching towards independence and love, all on her own. I think Mrs. Snow and Millie should be cut from the scene—but give Millie a song later on with Frank her ‘intended’ perhaps?
  • At the end of that song the whole shop empties because the train is coming in and that’s exciting for them. Pollyanna rushes out to see it. Aunt Polly, always afraid of looking bad or embarrassed, chases after her. The next scene has the townsfolk and I believe Pollyanna dancing. Where is Aunt Polly? Where did she go? She’s not in that scene, not even observing, where is she? She didn’t go home. I think this needs to be reviewed.
  • The show does not conclude, it seems to end on an uncertain note for the audience. The book gives a hint, but Steve Gallagher doesn’t use that. Pollyanna has some health issues at the end of the show. She is going away for treatment that may or may not work. The finale, as is, has the whole town gather to see her off, hopeful. And it ends, of course with the town changed to be a caring community. But the audience needs some assurance that this treatment will work out, since they have fallen in love with this indomitable spirit known as Pollyanna. Why can’t the scene and song remain, but the intention be changed? Instead of Pollyanna going away for treatment, why can’t the finale be her returning to them after treatment, still in the wheelchair, but then she does something to show that everything will be ok, as per that small final scene in the book? Just a few thoughts of a smart, joyful, uplifting show.  

Comment. The similarity between “Anne of Green Gables” by Canada’s own Lucy Maud Montgomery, published in 1908 and “Pollyanna” by American writer Eleanor H. Porter published in 1913, is marked. One story made me think of the other story.  Both are about orphans with distinct personalities. Anne is curious and spirited. Pollyanna always tries to see the good in people and to see the good in bad situations. Both have to win over a ‘rigid’ presence in their lives: Anne has to win over Marilla Cuthbert, Pollyanna has to win over her Aunt Polly. By dint of their indomitable personalities, they both succeed.

We live in fractious, angry times. Pollyanna’s philosophy of finding good in prickly people and bad situations is heartening and uplifting. Pollyanna The Musical is perfect for the holidays and every single day after that. It has a message, an attitude, a philosophy that is more effective in changing the world, or at least an obstreperous person, than anything else.

Theatre Aquarius Presents:

Runs until Dec. 23, 2023

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, (1 intermission)

www.theatreaquarius.org

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maja Ardal December 14, 2023 at 7:07 am

Great to see this review. Your comments are great. I was at the same show, and felt it cast a “spell” over us audience who leapt to our feet at the end in one of those spontaneous curtain calls that bonds audience and performers in such a perfect way. One of the things I would suggest is to have a “theme” song that gets repeated enough that we are humming it as we leave the theatre. We need an “ear worm” song that shows we are still under by the “spell” and that the message of the show has an effect on us, reminding us to be a little -or a lot- more like Pollyanna.

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2 Tammy Lee Rea December 24, 2023 at 4:49 pm

Agree with everything you say until you get to the ending. Some of the people I were with also said – it needed to be Pollyanna returning -” how could you not know if she was going to be okay?”
I think though, the whole point of the show is that good and bad things are going to happen – Pollyanna doesn’t have a positive outlook because thinks turn out well for her – she has a positive outlook on life, period.

I think the ending is perfect.

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