Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Theater review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at the Children’s Theatre at Casa Manana
Play hooky and make some trouble with Tom and Huck.
FORT WORTH Special note to readers: This review contains minor plot spoilers of the Children’s Theatre at Casa Manana’s production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It has been adapted by director Joe Sturgeon from the novel of the same name by Mark Twain. The novel was published in 1876. If you are unfamiliar with the story-line, then my recommendation to you, higher than I could give any play, is to stop reading this critique and drive yourself to the nearest public library or Barnes & Noble, or log onto your Amazon Kindle device and check it out. It is an essential reading experience from the lexicon of great literature.
Sturgeon’s version is quite faithful to its origin’s episodic nature. Tom Sawyer, parentless and living under his Aunt Polly’s roof, toes the fence line boundaries of religion, the education system, domesticity and the working man’s plight. Those are the underlying adult themes of Mark Twain’s budding, satirical warm-up to the Tom Sawyer spin-off, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer maintains a consistently jolly and playful tone thanks to the nimble energy of Clayton Slee as Tom and Tanner Schuldt as Tom’s trouble-making cohort, Huck Finn. Together they skip school, meander through the woods with the town drunk, Muff Potter, and often find themselves in compromising positions as they get a glimpse of the dark underbelly of distrustful adults.
Much of these adventures shine only at the surface level, as the polish of the streamlined pacing makes this production feel like a greatest hits anthology of a classic American tale. This works splendidly in the first half with scene staples such as Tom’s entrepreneurial spirit being put to action as he trades and upgrades Bible currency or cons his friends into hard labor painting Aunt Polly’s fence so he can spend the afternoon in leisure.
Once the play sets foot in the grave yard, however, it lacks dramatic tension, transitioning from scene to scene with the subtlety of a bulldozer. At one point, Tom and Huck witness their own funeral, and it only serves as a footnote to those familiar with the novel rather than a pivotal turning point in Tom Sawyer’s bad behavior. The action-packed foot chase between Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe is appropriately frenetic and intense, assisted by Jonathan Parke’s taut lighting design, but again, the rushed transitions to keep things moving along keep the audience at arm’s length from such a scene having any lingering effect.
Thankfully, much of the rest of the cast, like Slee and Schuldt, maintain a high level of enthusiasm and control throughout and do engage one’s interest. Casa Manana mainstays Christopher Deaton and Lisa Fairchild are both versatile in multiple roles with Deaton as Mr. Sprague and Injun Joe and Fairchild as Aunt Polly, Miss Dobbins, and Doc Robinson. Emma Colwell plays Becky Thatcher. Colwell’s interpretation is perhaps a bit too well-mannered to be Tom Sawyer’s love interest. The scene-stealer of the chorale of schoolchildren is Westin Brown as Sid, the smart-aleck who always seems to get in the last snide word of what he thinks of Tom.
Despite the rushed pacing, a single performer gives the show countless moments of a slow, steady heartbeat. Maurice Johnson is magnetic as Muff Potter and gives the show the added depth that is missing when he is not present. Johnson has a beautiful, baritone voice, singing throughout with such period appropriate folk songs, spirituals and hymns as “Down to the River and Pray,” “Ole’ Dan Tucker,” and the dramatic high point, “I’m Only Going Over Jordan.”
Katie Dill designs a set that is at once nostalgically suggestive of the time period and lovingly abstract. The massive backdrop of a fence line is simple enough, but the silhouette of an open river running right through it, aided by Lighting Designer Parkes’s warm lighting, help to create many memorable stage pictures.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be appreciated most by the children, of course, and the parents or adults who take them will enjoy lecturing them about how the book is always better than the movie or the play. I don’t believe the adult will be able to change the mind of the child, and in this instance that’s just how it should be.
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