Just in time to set sail simultaneously with the release of a certain seafaring film starring Johnny Depp, a sturdy new reconstitution of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is having its world premiere launch at Houston’s Alley Theater. Adapted with respectful enthusiasm and savvy showmanship by playwright Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”), the stripped-to-essentials script has inspired director Gregory Boyd and his players to present a streamlined and often exciting entertainment for audiences of all ages. Indeed, the show could usefully serve many youngsters as an introduction to the magic of live theater.
After premiering two relatively intimate comedies (“Leading Ladies,” “Be My Baby”) on the Alley stage, Ludwig ups the ante with this sweeping extravaganza, striving for all the scope and spectacle that can be contained on an expansive Eugene Lee set framed with rigging, masts and other nautical paraphernalia. And while some of the swashbuckling that spills across the stage could dial up the brio a notch or two, Boyd keeps the pace fleet, the flow smooth and the spirits high.
Better still, Boyd embellishes the action here and there with an inspired visual flourish, such as when he intros a very wicked buccaneer in enormous silhouette behind a billowing sail. Here and elsewhere, Clifton Taylor’s shrewd lighting counts for a lot.
With a tip of the tricorne to the “Peter Pan” tradition of having young women portray rambunctious boys, Boyd has effectively cast Elizabeth Bunch as plucky Jim Hawkins, the 18th century innkeeper’s son immersed in adventure after being fortuitously entrusted with a map to buried treasure. Bunch rises to the challenge with a vivacious performance propelled by aptly apportioned measures of youthful gusto, steely resolve, naive optimism and — when he finally uncovers the truth about the beguiling Long John Silver — enraged disillusionment.
Of course, it wouldn’t be “Treasure Island’ without a peg-legged John Silver stealing every scene that isn’t bolted to the deck. Alley company stalwart James Black plays the shameless seadog as a beguiling rogue whose ruthless cunning can easily be mistaken for hearty bonhomie. But even as he comes off satisfyingly larger than life, Black steers clear of campy excess. It’s not his fault he has to share scenes with a transparently fake parrot that can’t be taken seriously even as a theatrical device.
Among the versatile supporting players, standouts include John Tyson as the fearsome Blind Pew (whose martial artistry recalls the Japanese movies about sightless samurai Zatoichi); John Feltch as both wicked Captain Flint and heroic Dr. Livesey; Jeffrey Bean as the blustering Black Dog and authoritative Captain Smollet; Charles Krohn as ill-fated Billy Bones; Mark Shanahan as cutthroat George Merry; Noble Shropshire as the cheese-famished Ben Gunn; and Melissa Pritchett as Jack’s anxious mom and a saucy pirate lass.
With some minor tweaking in the second act, which currently concludes on an anticlimactic note, Ludwig’s script could be entirely shipshape for journeys to other stages (the production is unrelated to the planned Broadway mounting announced for summer). It would be interesting to see what possibilities could be exploited if the play were mounted in an outdoor venue. One by the water’s edge, perhaps?