With three songs cut and a strong new opening number added by the end of its first week (of two) in New Haven, Conn., “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” has been making good use of its pre-Broadway tryout. It’s headed in the right direction, and already has struck a delicate balance between Broadway pizzazz and Victorian Americana. The show pleasingly evokes a simpler time, establishes a rollicking, youthful energy and honors rather than belittles Mark Twain’s Tom.
Naturally, there’s work to be done. Sometimes Ken Ludwig’s otherwise deft book is a mite simple-minded and unimaginative as it cuts Twain’s novel down to musical size. Some of the characters, notably Injun Joe, need to be given fuller dimensions. But on the whole this new musical, with its bouncy country score by Don Schlitz and its utterly charming costumes by Anthony Powell, already has established a sense of itself that captures audience affection.
One big hurdle: Heidi Ettinger’s Broadway sets. Because they have been designed and built specifically for the Minskoff Theater they could not be used in New Haven. On Broadway, the scenery will be dominated by a wooden ramp soaring skyward so that scenes can be performed on different levels and Injun Joe can die in a spectacular fall. The simple aptness of director Scott Ellis’ staging of the musical at the Shubert Theater on an essentially empty stage works surprisingly well, and it’s to be hoped that it won’t be compromised by too much scenery.
The production has an imaginative front drop that reproduces Tom and Huck’s blood-oath note promising never to tell what they saw at the cemetery (Injun Joe killing Doc Robinson while grave-robbing and pinning the murder on drunken Muff Potter). The overture begins darkly, accompanied by thunder and lightning, but quickly turns sunny as the front drop rises to reveal Tom center stage, fishing and singing his new opening song, “Here’s My Plan” (to run away from home and become a sort of Robin Hood). The song, and Joshua Park’s terrific curly haired Tom, immediately establish the character firmly, and Park maintains a brightly youthful, but never cloying, innocent boyishness throughout.
Almost the entire cast is just fine, including Jim Poulos’ lusty Huck Finn, Kristen Bell’s delightful Becky, John Dossett’s immediately attractive and sympathetic Judge Thatcher and Jane Connell’s feisty Widow Douglas. Physically, Kevin Serge Durand is an imposing Injun Joe, but he needs more help from Ludwig and Ellis to establish his crucial character more firmly.
As Aunt Polly, Linda Purl is younger and prettier than might be expected, and why not? But at the moment she’s having trouble capturing the warring elements of her character — warm, loving heart vs. stern exterior. She is, for instance, too rudely abrupt to Judge Thatcher. After being rebuffed so curtly two or three times he would surely have had his romantic ardor doused. Purl and Ellis should have no trouble correcting this problem, however.
Schlitz’s songs emphasize their country origins with the help of a six-piece pit band, which includes two guitars and a piano, brightly conducted by Paul Gemignani. The rhythms are infectious and there are square-dance and hoe-down influences. His love song for Tom and Becky, “To Hear You Say My Name,” manages to be just right for such youngsters.
Huck and the Widow Douglas’ duet “I Can Read” is great fun. The “funeral” of Tom, Huck and Becky makes amusing use of gospel elements. And the one big dance number, “You Can’t Can’t Dance” is joyous, not least because of David Marques’ lively choreography, which is also boyishly gymnastic in the fence-painting song-and-dance. The score is, at times, unashamedly willing to mine well-known musical fields rather than strive for originality. Neither is it instantly memorable. But it serves its purpose well.
Powell’s costumes are extremely attractive in their use of period patterned fabrics, bonnets and pantaloons. And if his adult males look as much Dickensian and Twainian, well, it was the same period. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner has done invaluable work on the second act’s lengthy lost-in-the-cave scene, which is performed on a completely empty stage. Obviously, he and director Ellis will have to do a lot of reworking when the musical has its full complement of scenery at the Minskoff.
As it happens, Ettinger designed the award-winning sets for the hit 1985 Huckleberry Finn musical “Big River.” Maybe that’s a good omen for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”