When you’ve spent the last four years of your relatively short life alternating between playing one of Disney’s most beloved heroines and one of Canada’s most revered literary figures, you might think it could turn a young lady’s head.
But, judging from a recent conversation, Amy Wallis is doing just fine in the modesty department with none of the arrogance that both her onstage prototypes – Anne Shirley and Belle – have sometimes displayed.
Wallis, 26, is currently in Toronto rehearsing with the Charlottetown Festival Company to begin her fourth season as the title character in that best known of all Canadian musicals, Anne of Green Gables. What makes this time around even more special for her is that the show is going to begin on May 7 with a run at the Elgin Theatre, courtesy of Dancap Productions.
“I’m incredibly excited to be appearing in the city that I hope to build a career in,” says Wallis. “I really want to do well here.”
The chances are that she will. The reviews from her first three summers as Anne have all been glowing – the same kind of response in her native Vancouver, where she’s starred for the past four Christmases in the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast.
This might be the time for a bit of total disclosure. I directed Wallis’s mother, Valerie Easton (who is now a noted choreographer) and my wife, Pamela, appeared on stage with her father, Ray Wallis (who has left the business for a career in financial planning), when we were all young and foolish in Vancouver, back in the 1970s. But the Ouzounians had moved East by the time Amy was born on Sept. 16, 1982.
“Mom and dad didn’t want me to go into theatre at all,” she laughs. “They tried to get me interested in sports, but all I wanted to do was perform. I would force my parents to watch me put on these long, involved plays I had created when I was only four. I was always running around doing numbers from Cats and driving them crazy.”
By this point, Wallis’s father had quit show business “cold turkey,” in his daughter’s words, and was enjoying working in the financial sector. “Dad would try to get me interested in the things he was doing,” Wallis confesses, “and I would just stare at him with drool coming down from my mouth. I was such a Broadway baby!”
But the Wallis family still held the line, making sure Amy would have something approaching a normal existence. “I got very involved in high school drama,” shares Wallis, “and so I asked my mother if I could have an agent. She said `no.’ It was okay if went to dance classes and acted in community theatre, but she wanted me to have a real life.”
Eventually she spent a few years at York University, but dropped out, feeling that “I was ready and I knew what I wanted.”
After a year on a cruise ship (“just so I could see the world”), she wound up in her old hometown and got her first professional job as Anybodys in the Arts Club Theatre production of West Side Story.
Since then, she’s kept busy across the country in various shows, but there’s no doubt in her mind that the cherry on the sundae has been playing Anne Shirley.
“I flew out to Toronto to audition for it,” she remembers, “and I had no idea how I did at first. I wanted the part so badly! I had read the books as a little girl and the first song I ever sang at a concert was `Gee, I’m Glad I’m No One Else But Me.’ I had the VHS copy of the Megan Follows TV version and I’d watched it so much over the years that the tape had literally worn out. That’s how much I loved Anne of Green Gables.”
So her heart started beating just a bit faster when director Anne Allen stopped her after her audition and asked if she was planning to stay in Toronto a few more days.
“I told her `no,'” says Wallis, “that I was flying right back home. She just looked at me and said `Oh, I’d stay around.'”
Wallis was called back several times, and when she got to her final audition she remembers thinking she had blown it because she saw Allen turn to whisper to someone during her song.
“`Oh great, I thought, `She’s talking while I’m singing!'”
What she only found out later was that the person Allen was whispering to was author Don Harron, and what she was saying was “I think we’ve finally found our Anne.”
Things are busy for Wallis right now, but what about life after Anne?
“I see myself playing as many different roles as possible. I really want to do My Fair Lady. And I’ve always hoped to be in a production of Les Miserables. I’d be anyone … even the third whore from the left!”
I wonder what Marilla would have to say about that!
Q: What was the first musical you ever saw?
Marilyn Dalzell, Peterborough
A: It was a Vancouver production of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby and Long John Baldry. Cathy Rigby threw fairy dust on me so I went home and tried to fly. I couldn’t. I didn’t get hurt, but I was very sad.
Q: How old were you when you first came across Anne of Green Gables?
Jean-Anne Moors, Whitby
A: I think I was 9 when I first started reading one of the books. Then I learned the songs from the musical and next came the TV show on tape.
Q: Why do you think Anne of Green Gables is still so popular in Charlottetown after all these years?
Eleanor Vineberg, Halifax, N.S.
A: First of all, it’s a wonderful show, but I also think people love coming to see Anne’s story near her home.
ANNES WITH AN ‘E’
Fourteen actresses have played Anne Shirley in the Charlottetown Festival production of Anne of Green Gables since it premiered in 1965. Here’s a few:
Susan Cuthbert (1979-1980): She went on to become the first alternate for Rebecca Caine’s Christine Daae in the original Toronto production of The Phantom of the Opera, playing the role at least twice a week.
Glynis Ranney (1991-1992): Known for her soulful, wide-eyed stare and crystal-clear voice, Ranney has been seen for many years at the Shaw Festival.
Tracy Michailidis (1994-1996): One of the most serious and emotional of all Annes, Michailidis has gone on to star at Shaw and Stratford as well as theatres around North America.
Chilina Kennedy (2000-2001): The feisty, sexy Kennedy went far beyond Anne Shirley, starring as Sophie in the national tour of Mamma Mia! and is currently at Stratford, in West Side Story.