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Musical on the life of Anne of Green Gables marks 50th anniversary

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Actor Katie Kerr (Anne) runs through the opening scene of Anne of Green Gables The Musical at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Monday, June 30, 2014. The Centre is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the musical this summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Rochford

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Actor Katie Kerr (Anne) runs through the opening scene of Anne of Green Gables The Musical at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Monday, June 30, 2014. The Centre is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the musical this summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Rochford

CHARLOTTETOWN - Since 1965, a little red-haired girl with a big imagination has warmed the hearts of theatregoers at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.

"Anne of Green Gables — The Musical" celebrates its 50th season this year, making it the longest running musical in Canada.

It is part of the Charlottetown Festival, which is also in its half-century of existence.

"To be part of this occasion is really an honour," said Marcia Kash, who has directed the musical since 2011.

The story was written by Lucy Maude Montgomery and turned into a musical for the stage in 1964 by writers Don Harron, Norman and Elaine Campbell, and Mavor Moore.

Harron, who is well known for his many acting and writing credits as well as his comedy character Charlie Farquharson, had originally been tasked to adapt the story for a 90-minute television program that first aired on the CBC in 1956.

Harron, now 89, said he had been approached in 1955 by Norman Campbell who was looking for a subject for a television program.

"I said I'd been reading a book to my kids called Anne of Green Gables and it seems to me that this little girl has such an imagination that the only way you can really realize it would be in song," Harron recalled.

The story is of a red-headed orphan who nobody wanted. She is sent to Prince Edward Island to a brother and sister who want a boy to help on their farm. The wires got crossed and they get a girl, who they consider sending back.

"They keep her and she changes their lives and opens their hearts," Kash said.

"Her determination and her positive survivor instinct makes her the heart centre of Avonlea, the fictional town where all of this takes place."

Katie Kerr is in her second season starring as Anne. She is the 16th actress to fill the role since the musical debuted.

"Sweet 16 ... It's a dream come true," Kerr said, adding that she had researched the Charlottetown Festival after playing Anne in a community theatre production in her home of Windsor, Ont.

Kerr said she quickly realized what a cherished icon Anne of Green Gables has become on Prince Edward Island, adding to the responsibility she feels to give her best performance every night.

"She is a spirit of the Island, but a lot of people think she is a real person and that she lived here," Kerr said. "The essence of her is in so much of the Island and its culture."

Aside from "Anne of Green Gables — The Musical," the Charlottetown Festival offers a number of other productions this season, including "Canada Rocks."

The production was created to help celebrate 2014 as the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, which led to Confederation three years later.

"Canada Rocks takes us across Canada from Vancouver all the way to Prince Edward Island for the 2014 celebrations, and along the way we're seeing the beautiful scenic country and picking up and recognizing all the musical artists from each different region across the country," said Anne Allan, the festival's artistic director.

Allan said the show features the music of artists such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Brian Adams, along with newer artists like Arcade Fire and Feist.

"Along with that is a 14-piece orchestra and a rock band, so we're able to honour these artists," Allan said.

Outside the Confederation Centre in the amphitheatre, the festival's young company has a production called "We are Canadian."

For those who may have been to the festival in the past and seen "Anne of Green Gables," the production has been updated with the use of projection screens that add to the scenery.

Kash said while the production has been modernized, the timeless story remains the same.

"Every generation can relate to it and that's why people keep coming and see it time and time again and bring their children and grandchildren," she said.

Harron said the story is timeless because Lucy Maude Montgomery wrote a classic, and he feels lucky to have been able to adapt it for the stage.

"To have a theatre that will do it every year, that's luck," he said.

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If you go:

Tickets for "Anne of Green Gables — The Musical" start at $25.

www.charlottetownfestival.com

www.tourismpei.com

www.pei2014.ca

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