The best entertainment during that dreary first act might well come from the comments made by little kids in the audience who innocently respond to dialogue intended for actors on the stage; the goings-on are so bland that it's hard to believe the same creative team is responsible for the far more engaging second act. Mind you, the second act isn't The Lion King, but at least the much-ballyhooed set designs of Heidi Ettinger begin to justify all the hoopla. And that's not all: There are a few strong songs admirably performed by the talented adults in the show, and the direction of Scott Ellis suddenly displays some signs of life.
The book by Ken Ludwig hits the iconic moments of Twain's famous novel, which was never intended as a children's story. So, as family entertainment goes, this Tom Sawyer brings you grave-robbing, attempted murder, actual murder, and a funeral for children thought to be dead, among other nightmarish events. But, hey, there's no sex! You still get the whitewashing of the wooden fence and the big finale in the caves, all presented with the help of song and dance.
There are three memorable songs, but not a terpsichorean step worth repeating. The book does have its amusing moments; for instance, Tom signals his innocent love for Becky Thatcher (Kristen Bell) with the gift of a doorknob. Still, one wishes the knob were attached to a door that opened upon far more satisfying family musical theater fare like Beauty and the Beast or Seussical.
If you've already seen those other shows and you must take your kids to the theater, you'll be pleased to know that, in addition to Twain's intended romance between Tom and Becky, Ludwig adds a romantic subplot involving Tom's Aunt Polly (Linda Purl) and Becky's father, Judge Thatcher (John Dossett). This is a change adult audiences will applaud, because both Purl and Dossett can sing and act (unlike some others in the show). In addition, Kevin Durand's Injun Joe has plenty of power and presence, and a voice to match. Tom Aldredge gives a fine, scruffy performance as the good-hearted drunk Muff Potter and old pro Jane Connell is a pleasure to watch as the Widow Douglas. Also pleasurable are Anthony Powell's lovely period costumes, Kenneth Posner's shimmering lighting (particularly in the second act), and Heidi Ettinger's vision of the caves.
There are worthy elements here; and it must be considered a credit to the show that the audience, including a great many kids, did not seem to grow restless. If only the music and lyrics were better. At least you can hang on to Linda Purl's loving rendition of "This Time Tomorrow" and the heartbreaking intensity of "Angels Lost," sung by much of the cast in the genuinely moving rescue scene near the end of the show. Now, if someone would rescue the first act...
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