BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The best starting point for what's right and wrong with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the new musical based on Mark Twain's novel, are Heidi Ettinger's sets. Ettinger, who also worked on Big River, the 1985 Tony Award winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, has given the town of St. Petersburg, Mo. the look of a colorful three-dimensional folk art painting or quilt.
The designer clearly intends to echo Twain's portrayal of boyhood life along the Mississippi. A curved wooden ramp resembling a playground slide and a tree that looks like a giant appliqued fly swatter are part of this visual accompaniement for the unfolding adventures of mischievous Tom and his St. Petersburg chums. For the cave scene, the set ingeniously shows both the underground place in which Tom Sawyer (Joshua Park) and his girl friend Becky Thatcher (Kristen Bell) are lost and the town above where the anxious townspeople have mounted an all-out search.
The double-tiered inside-outside set is a stunningly effective piece of stagecraft. Unfortunately, it is also the show's most all-around successful scene and doesn't come until well into the second act. The potential tragedy and the agony of Tom's Aunt Polly (Linda Purl) and Becky's father Judge Thatcher (John Dossett) is real and powerful. With "Angels Lost", sung by Polly and the Judge and the townspeople, Don Schlitz, whose experience has heretofore been as a country music songwriter, displays a genuine feel for the special demands of the theatrical musical.
With the exception of a novelty number, "I Can Read", in a scene between Huck Finn (Jim Poulos) and the kindly Widow Douglas (Jane Connell), and "This Time Tomorrow", (another solo by Linda Purl), the rest of Schlitz' score is melodic but hardly memorable. It's too bad that Scott Ellis cut another ballad (by Aunt Polly and the Judge) that I heard during a sneak peek press event (Tom Sawyer Preview ) which had much of this song's quality. It promised to strengthen the relationship between these characters and would have given a much needed lift to the first act.
Like the music, the lyrics also aren't particularly distinctive and the twang-y country flavor one would expect from this songwriter is disappointingly absent. As for Ms. Ettinger's appealing looking set for the day-to-day doings of the town, it's flexible enough to accommodate a variety of locations but somehow the look is more that of a pop-up book than an authentic folk painting or quilt -- something drawn with markers and crayons or stitched by machine.
This also brings us to Ken Ludwig's adaptation. He has adroitly cut and pasted together most of the book's anecdotes and effected some sensible changes along the way, notably making Aunt Polly younger and less shrewish. Everything guaranteed to make the kids laugh and clutch the edge of their seats is there -- from the famous fence whitewashing (the only scene with any choreography that merits praise) to the the trial of the innocent Muff Potter (Tom Aldredge) to the deliciously scary encounter with the play's bad guy, Injun Joe. What's missing, as in the setting for the town, is a sense of authenticity which in this case is the voice of the man who spun these anecdotes not so much as a tale for children but as a witty, outsider-looking-in commentator on the lives of children growing up in America circa 1844.
To Ludwig and director Ellis's credit, they have not bowed to the political correctness police by making Injun Joe (Kevin Durand) a kinder, gentler Indian. But this is a single departure from a general emphasis on providing a non-threatening, non-controversial, feel-good experience. This nicely-nicely approach includes a town that has been integrated, with even one of its most influential citizens, Reverend Sprague, an African-American (Tommy Hollis). Given the play's pre-Civil War time frame this particular bit of color-blind casting would be something of a stretch if Hollis didn't have the best voice in the whole cast. His revival style funeral service in the penultimate scene is one of the show's high points.
The six to twelve year olds in the audience won't be bothered one whit by the "what's wrongs" of staging, music and book. (My just-about-to-be-eight grandson called me with an "I liked it" report after seeing last Saturday afternoon's matinee. On the other hand he didn't go around singing the songs as he did with The Music Man or You're A Good Man Charlie Brown). Nor will the kids have any complaints about Joshua Park's Tom, Kristen Bell's Becky or Jim Poulos' Huck -- all of whom acquit themselves well considering their lack of Broadway experience. Park's dark curls and athletic energy will no doubt be a special draw for pubescent girls.
The grownups will, and rightly so, prefer the adult performers all of whom are excellent. They'll also appreciate the lush fabrics and colors in which Anthony Powell has dressed the townspeople, young and old. The hair design by David Brian Brown is just a bit too, well, wiggy. Mostly the adults' enjoyment will come from watching the children enjoying themselves for, when all is said and done, this is a show mostly for children accompanied by adults rather than a show which happens to be suitable for kids as well as adults.