The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Minskoff Theatre - May 2001
Reviewed by John Kenrick
This show deserved a far better fate! Whatever its shortcomings, Tom Sawyer had charm, melody, and a genuine professional polish. These are not qualities to be taken for granted on Broadway, especially at a time when artless travesties like Saturday Night Fever and Footloose were able to run for more than a year apiece.
Its not bad enough that the critics were condescending to this show the fact is most didn't even give it fair coverage in their reviews.
Yes, Heidi Ettinger's ravishing sets won a few raves, as well as a Tony nomination. But did anyone mention that these were possibly the most inventive designs Broadway has seen in years? The entire show was set on an undulating floor of bleached wood that included a hill with steps, a slide for the boys, and a central area that became anything from a classroom to a swimming hole. Stylized trees and buildings were added as needed, climaxing in a cave set that had everyone cheering. And Kenneth Posner's inventive lighting was truly sensational, showing every scene (and Anthony Powell's handsome costumes) to the best possible advantage.
But this was not one of those over-produced flops that leaves the audience humming the sets. The score by country songwriter Don Schlitz was a tuneful and polished professional effort which is more than I can say for the amateur antics that won raves for Mel Brooks in The Producers. Schlitz's first-ever Broadway effort blended easily with Ken Ludwig's often amusing book, which played some interesting variations on the original story. Sadly, the first act suffered from the episodic style of Mark Twain's novel. It was not until Act Two that the show took on a clear dramatic focus.
Some years ago, Big River (based on Twain's Huckleberry Finn) handled this problem by having Huck Finn act as narrator. Ludwig may have wanted to avoid comparison, but having Tom take us through his story would have made it much easier for the audience give its heart to these characters.
The book also plays up the romance between Tom and Becky Thatcher while minimizing Tom's friendship with Huck. Tom and Huck did not share a song until the finale bad call guys! This belated declaration of boyish camaraderie electrified the audience, and would have been far more useful at the start of the proceedings. As for Becky, he character was given no qualities (other than her looks) to explain Tom's infatuation with her. I am all for heterosexual romance in musicals, but not when its as mindless as this.
The show's other flaw was in its casting of the title role. Joshua Park is a very talented young man, with a great voice and an abundance of energy not every actor could make his entrance from underwater (there was a functioning swimming hole on stage) and handle a major solo moments later. But Park did not have the charisma needed to be America's favorite bad boy. This was made all the more apparent by the casting of Jim Poulos as Huck. Poulos had far more stage presence than his co-star. In fact, I'm surprised director Scott Ellis didn't have these two trade roles. It would have served the show far better.
Poulos shared the evening's best showstopper with veteran musical comedienne Jane Connell. As the Widow Douglas, she tutors the illiterate Huck until he can joyously proclaim "I Can Read" a sort of "Rain in Spain" moment that no audience could resist. After a career stretching back more than half a century, Ms. Connell remains one of the theatre's greatest living treasures. what a joy to see her on Broadway again!
Other supporting roles were capably cast, most notably Kristen Bell as Becky, Linda Purl as the embattled Aunt Becky, John Dosset as the stalwart Judge Thatcher and Marshall Pailet as the deliciously hateful tattletale Sid.
Kevin Surge Durand was perfectly cast as the evil Injun Joe, and Tom Aldredge was loveable as ever playing the perpetually inebriated Muff Potter. Tom Hollis was especially impressive as Reverend Sprague, and John Christopher Jones won laughs as the inept schoolmaster.
The choreography by David Marques struck no sparks, but Michael Starobin's orchestrations and Paul Gemignani's ever-dependable conducting gave every moment of the show an unmistakable Broadway sound.
Its a genuine shame Tom Sawyer did not get a chance to run the audience I attended it with was filled with children who clearly adored the show. And lets face it there aren't many new shows you can take a kid to any more! (Trust me, you would NOT want to take small children to The Producers or Full Monty!) I hope this show is somehow recorded and finds a life in regional theatre. Despite its flaws, its too enjoyable to just disappear.