Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Tom Jones: The Musical"

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"TOM JONES: THE MUSICAL"

book and lyrics by Paul Leigh
music by George Stiles
in collaboration with Daniel D. Brambilla and Vera Guerin
based on a concept by John Doyle
based on the novel by Henry Fielding

directed by Gabriel Barre
choreography by Christopher Gattelli
musical direction and additional vocal arrangements by Lynne Shankel

Tom Jones … David Burnham
Sophia Western … Angela Gaylor
Mr. Fitzpatrick; Reverend Summer; etc. … Stephen Bienskie
Mr. Partridge; Lawyer … Bill Buell
Mr. Allworthy; Lord Fellamar; Innkeeper … Larry Daggett
Jennie Jones; Mrs. Waters … Laura Marie Duncan
Bridget Allworthy; Lady Bellaston … Sara Gettelfinger
Squire Western … Tim Jerome
Landlady; Mrs. Summer … Barbara McCullo
Mrs. Fitzpatrick … Michelle Ragusa
Molly; Susan … Sheri Sanders
Blifil; Captain Blifil … Jeremy Webb
Mr. Thawackum; Priest; Frankie; Tailor … Ron Wisniski

Orchestra:

Conductor … Lynne Shankel
Flute; Piccolo; Recorder; Alto Sax … Robert Bowlby, Jr.
Oboe; English Horn; Penny Whistles … Andrea Bonsignore
Clarinet; Bariton Sax; Bass Clarinet … Peter Cokkinias
Trumpet; Piccolo Trumpet; Cornet; Flugelhorn … Jay Daly
French Horns … Alyssa Coffey; Robert Marlatt
Violin … Zoia Bologovsky
Cello … Timothy Roberts
Bass … Ed Krauss
Guitars; Mandolin … Scott Johnson
Percussion … Mark Worgaftik
Keyboard; Accordian … Rachel Kaufman
Keyboard … Jana Zielonka

The American premiere of TOM JONES: THE MUSICAL adds to my growing conviction that the Age of Sondheim is on the wane and that composers, lyricists and librettists are slowly, slowly turning to lighter, happier fare without embarrassment or apology. Henry Fielding’s celebrated novel about Tom Jones, who begins as a bastard foundling and ends as a respectable man after much plot-twisting and bed-hopping, is a marvelous literary romp, rich in human comedy and winking observation; Mr. Jones became a screen hero of sorts in the equally celebrated film version where his hi-jinks meshed with silent film comedy and New Wave aesthetics, and now he can be viewed onstage at the North Shore Music Theatre (the musical’s creators make it quite clear at the beginning that their entertainment is NOT about a similarly-named pop icon). Much of TOM JONES: THE MUSICAL works as a good-humored romp in its own right albeit a rather lengthy one: Tom may not be true to his sweetheart Sophia but Paul Leigh and George Stiles have certainly been to Mr. Fielding’s complex storytelling; even with the speeding up of Tom and Sophia’s romance and two plot reductions --- Sophia’s meddlesome aunt is now combined with the runaway Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and Molly the Wench is trotted in and just as quickly trotted out, again (a send-up would have her singing, “Me and Mr. Jones / We got a thing goin’ on….”), the evening clocks in at three hours’ playing time yet there is little else that can be trimmed (the score, yes: the plot, no); a three-act structure instead of the current two may keep the audience’s eyes from glazing over and their bottoms from taking root. As for the score, it is agreeably poppy though at times anachronistic (e.g., London as one big disco) and Mr. Leigh’s stylized lyrics are perfectly in sync with his drawing-room dialogue; the highlights include several charming duets for Tom and Sophia, the clever-clever “Behold” prologue which telescopes the circumstances of Tom’s birth and upbringing, the zany Act One finale “Sir” when a night at an inn resembles the colliding of many hamsters in one cage, and Tom’s puzzling anthem “Come What May” where he proclaims he is a free man even though he is languishing in prison. The film’s famous Eating Scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters, played out in munching silence, is here reduced to a few lines of dialogue; pity --- it would have made a delicious orchestral dumb show.

Director Gabriel Barr and choreographer Christopher Gatelli may substitute campy knowingness for out-and-out ribaldry and they are aided and abetted by Pamela Scofield’s garish costumes (you’d think Georgian England was riddled with nymphomaniacs), but their presentational, near-commedia approach keeps things light and frothy enough with their ensemble changing costumes and characters in full view of the audience and supplying sound effects while ringed about the stage; in fact, the more artificial their production becomes the better it is as in the “Fair Sophia” number with a ripe bevy of beauties posing as gurgling fountain statuary alongside a Cupid in long johns while the lady in question floats down to earth or the fox-hunting sequence or a lovely moon suggested by a large Chinese lantern or Tom’s duel with Mr. Fitzgerald where the men mime going at it empty-handed while another stands to one side, scraping two foils together; even the North Shore’s well-known trap-doors are tweaked when the lovers write letters of assignation to each other --- they sign “farewell” and start to sink, Sophia calls a halt in afterthought and they are hastily raised up again; for me, the most touching moment is also the simplest which is Tom’s journey on foot to London: the bustling stage is wiped clean save for our hero as he goes forth, fearless and eager (the actor’s natural gait along with the revolving turntable evokes more time and space than any amount of panoramic scenery would); when Tom is joined by Mr. Partridge, who may or may not be his father, the poignancy is doubled with the young man striding along while his elder trots behind, tired but devoted --- the image is fleeting but betrays a few heartbeats of Mr. Fielding's humanity, nonetheless.

The Messrs. Barr and Gatelli’s ensemble, made up of thirteen decathlon actors/singers, go through their paces with much energy and plenty of relish; no “stars” may come out it but there is a clutch of solid performances: David Burnham’s Tom is a sweet-faced Big Kid with a big voice, very much in the Pippin-Joseph mould, and he is well-contrasted with Jeremy Webb’s Blifil --- in the book Blifil is a religious prig pushed to extremes; here, he has been designed and directed to be a veritable Satan on earth (notice that the back of Mr. Webb’s wig resembles a scorpion’s tail); his line reading of “What will you … do?” suggests a cobra going into its dance; Mr. Allworthy must be very thick indeed for not noticing until the eleventh hour what a serpent he has been nursing in his bosom. Larry Daggett as said Allworthy doubles as the lecherous Mr. Lord Fellamar and gives a sterling lesson in how a gentleman of the 18th century can be elegant (Mr. A.) but not necessarily a fop (Lord F.), and Tim Jerome, Bill Buell and Ron Wisniski lend detailed character support as, respectively, the blustery Squire Western, the loyal Mr. Partridge (truly a boy’s best friend) and the toadying Mr. Thawackum. Mr. Fielding’s Sophia has a ready wit and, when necessary, a sharp tongue but she is also an aristocrat layered in decorum; something that her bastard lover would view as his guiding, unattainable star. Had Angela Gaylor been more tastefully costumed, especially in restraining undergarments, she might have convinced me that her Sophia was a virgin-in-waiting; instead, freely dressed and with her legs ever glimpsed though her gauzy gowns, she scurries and bullies and blends in with her fellow hoydens; in more gentler, sympathetic hands she might have glowed rather than glared. Times being what they are, there may come a day when future actresses won’t know how to play virgins at all as their older sisters have been raised in a culture where a girl’s purity is now ridiculed and media sluts grow younger with each passing year. The times demand that even virgins must be babes and so they have slid down from their pillars and are all too accessible (as Parker Tyler once wrote about screen goddesses, they are not to be slept ON but, rather, slept ABOUT). These New Virgins may be more “free”, they may be more “real”, but from this man’s point of view, they are also less magical; the current Mr. Jones would be no worse off had he stayed with the short-shrifted Molly.

"Tom Jones: The Musical" (1 - 20 June)
NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY MA
1 (978) 232-7200

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