It’s not just the famous fence that gets whitewashed in the latest Broadway trip to the bookshelf of Mark Twain. Huck and Tom and even Injun Joe get a good scrubbing behind the ears, too, in this sunny and handsome but deflatingly bland musical adaptation of the Twain classic. The show is a pleasant two hours of family entertainment, but Broadway is surfeited with high-profile kid-friendly shows at the moment, and “Tom Sawyer” may have a hard time wrassling himself a sufficient piece of the B.O. pie.
Comparisons to “Big River,” the hit musical adapted from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” are inevitable and not likely to favor the new show, which features a book by Ken Ludwig (“Crazy for You,” “Lend Me a Tenor”) and songs by Don Schlitz, a pop-country composer best known for the Kenny Rogers hit “The Gambler.”
In truth, many of the new musical’s deficiencies in comparison to “Big River” may stem directly from the source material: In structure, execution and theme, “Huckleberry Finn” is the superior book by some measure. While it cunningly tells the story of a boy’s moral awakening and subtly condemns the inhumanity of slavery, “Tom Sawyer” is really just a larking, episodic grab bag of images from a Deep South country childhood.
The book’s lighthearted spirit is neatly captured in the show’s lively opening number, “Hey, Tom Sawyer,” in which Tom (Joshua Park) and his cohorts race up and down Heidi Ettinger’s stylish, sweeping wooden set, energetically getting up to no good while Tom’s Aunt Polly (Linda Purl) and the townsfolk voice their exasperation with the town rascal. Schlitz’s country-style score has many charming highlights and infectious melodies — among them an aching, lovely solo, “This Time Tomorrow,” for Purl’s nicely etched Aunt Polly. But it could use more real tang and variety; the chicken-fried, perky fiddle-based songs for Huck and Tom seem interchangeable, while the moody, declamatory numbers for Injun Joe might have wandered in from a Frank Wildhorn musical.
Ludwig has done an able job of stitching together a single narrative from the rambling collection of boyhood adventures in Twain’s novel, even if the show retains some of the ambling, unfocused style of the book. The first act climax is the shiver-inducing moment when Tom identifies Injun Joe (Kevin Duran) as the real killer of Doc Robinson and the miscreant flies out a courthouse window. The second act mostly takes place inside the cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher get lost. Ludwig tosses Huck and Injun Joe down there too, for a tidy climax that may be a trifle violent for youngsters (a disturbing wail of terror arose from row G when Injun Joe took a knife to Becky’s throat).
Ettinger’s marvelous set plays a major role in this act, as its wood-slatted pieces slide in and out like pieces of a kaleidoscope to suggest the various recesses of the cave; above, Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher fret against a handsome expanse of sky. Kenneth Posner’s artful, gem-colored lighting is beautifully deployed to add to the eerie atmosphere.
At other times, however, this essentially small-scaled musical is somewhat dwarfed by the size of the Minskoff stage. Perhaps to disguise the somewhat lonely look of the town, director Scott Ellis encourages plenty of spirited leaping and frolicking on the part of the youngsters (or not-so-youngsters: the actor playing Tom is 24), but he is not aided by the dull choreography of David Marques. Two additional choreographers are credited in the program, making one wonder how it took three people to come up with the decidedly unjubilant and unimaginative reel for the big dance number, “You Can’t Can’t Dance.”
Dancing aside, the cast can’t bring a lot of personality to characterizations that have been largely scrubbed free of any rough edges. Park’s Tom is just a big broad smile surrounded by a swirl of dark curls, while Jim Poulos’ Huck Finn is practically sanctified. Even Injun Joe is stolid and rather chicly dressed in Anthony Powell’s costumes, hardly the creepy figure of the book.
Joe also is given a few lines of exculpatory dialogue referring to his humiliating treatment at the hands of the townspeople, a mild feint toward political correctness that is continued in the show’s color-blind casting. This is understandable in a family show that doesn’t directly address the racism of the Deep South, but it’s still a bit disconcerting to see black boys and white girls merrily dancing together in 19th-century Missouri.
It’s also emblematic of the creators’ thoughtful but uninspired approach to their material: They clearly have been at pains to avoid offending, but they seem to have forgotten the need to excite.