“Tonight you’re going to see a birth right here onstage,” announced the 5th Avenue Musical Theater Co.’s producing artistic director David Armstrong, just before the curtain rose on the premiere of a new musical version of “The Prince & the Pauper.” As we all know, births are joyous and messy occasions, and this new Ivan Menchell/Marc Elliot/Judd Woldin creation is equal parts both. The time-tested appeal of the story and a load of buoyant talent saves the show from its own worst qualities — among them, dubious subplotting, occasionally awkward writing and some forgettable music. “The Prince & the Pauper” seems to have the raw material to please both children and adults, and many of its problems appear to be fixable.
Co-produced by Seattle’s 5th Avenue and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn., the show was workshopped in Los Angeles and Kansas City. It’s based on Mark Twain’s novel of two English boys, both the same age but of drastically different social stations, who switch places with each other. The show concerns itself mostly with the boys’ efforts to return to their proper places, and the lessons they learn along the way about how the other half lives.
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It would seem a gamble to rest the fate of a new musical on the small shoulders of two adolescent boys, but director Russell Kaplan hit the jackpot with Asher Monroe Book and Cameron Bowen in the title roles. The young singer/actors, both with impressive national credits, are extremely likable performers — energetic but not hammy; clear and intelligible. And Book, who plays Prince Edward, has a sweet, expressive voice that you can’t quite hear enough of.
Also terrific is Marc Kudisch as Miles Hendon, Prince Edward’s protector. He doesn’t appear onstage until the last half of the first act, at which point his confidence and charisma propel the story straight into the intermission.
And the talent goes still deeper. Stacia Fernandez doesn’t have many lines as the mother of Tom, the pauper, but she conveys tremendous compassion with two songs (“Though You’re Not Him” and “Dream Away”). Perry L. Brown makes a formidable King Henry, and Alan Coates is quietly devious as Hertford, his power-hungry underling.
While the actors do their best with what they’re given, many of their roles could be more gracefully drawn. Miles Hendon, the prince’s compatriot, is a stage stereotype of a drunkard. This makes for some laughs at his entrance, and a nice conversion at the end, when he swears off drink forever, but it’s a glib and unnecessary transformation.
Likewise Tom’s father John Canty (Peter Lohnes) is written to be too broadly villainous, and Tom’s “love interest,” Lady Jane (Kaitlyn M. Davidson), is so much more mature than Tom (and, in the figure of Davidson, so much taller and older-looking), that at first she can be mistaken for the prince’s governess.
Some lines and lyrics are equally inexplicable. Anachronisms are endemic to the musical form, but here a bad joke about English beef seems completely jarring. And song lyrics to the effect of “Do stop this silly game; doesn’t it seem awfully lame?,” seem out of place in 16th-century England.
The songs, as a whole, are not destined to become instant classics. But some are plenty good. “How Did I Get Here?,” the act-two opener, finds our three heroes (prince, pauper and Hendon) all comically coming to grips with their various predicaments. “Dream Away” is a lovely ballad in which Mrs. Canty comforts a fearful child.
The double-decker set by G.W Mercier is both functional and attractive; a two-tiered tableau of lords and ladies in silhouette at a palace ball in the middle of the first act is particularly striking.
By show’s end, the world has been made right, and the entire cast joins in a utopian anthem called “All of Us Are the Same.” The theme of humility and equality is one that could have used more development over the course of the evening, but like the show overall, it’s delivered with such high spirits and good nature it’s hard to resist. Undeniably, “The Prince & the Pauper” needs work; but unlike some new ventures, it deserves the effort.