Every once in awhile, a new piece of musical theatre comes along which even in development has potential to join the canon. "Tom Jones", George Stiles and Paul Leigh's latest effort may be just such a show. Stiles' earlier effort with Anthony Drewe, "Honk", which won an 2000 Olivier, is already on that track. "Moll Flanders", done at Theatre Royal York, which won Stiles and Leigh a TMA award in 1996, is waiting in the drawer. "Tom Jones" was also first done at York in 1998, with a book edited from Fielding's picaresque classic by John Doyle, the Theatre Royal's director. This current version, however, was instigated by Daniel Brambilla, a developer of new musical projects along Vera Guerin and head of the large Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. The pair convinced Stiles and Leigh to scrap the narrative book and move to the current more integrated structure. Gabriel Barre, who won the Calloway Award for his direction of "The Wild Party" at MTC, and who helmed "Memphis" for NSMT last fall, was recruited to direct a workshop production in Toronto in 2002 and continued to contribute to the project. The result of this extended teamwork is an fast-paced epic theatre romp in the round, following the rakish hero from country haycocks to coaching inns to a London bedroom, while a cast of thirteen, including the three principals, changes costume a vista in the moat, flings props about willy-nilly, and provides most of the sound effects live, sometimes as part of the scene.
Meanwhile, an ensemble of thirteen musicians under the able baton of Lynne Shankel plays Stiles' lush score, with its period echoes, a lush musical theatre sound, and occasional nods to contemporary styles. There are numbers suggesting ballad opera, a few burlesqueing musical comedy tropes, a touch of Brechtian directness from the villain, some hummable ballads, and a first act fugal ending right out of comic opera. Designer James Youmans, though new to NSMT, takes full advantage of the theater's traps, turntable, and other mechanical assets, while surrounding the action with a circle of suspended gilded oval frames depicting the Somerset countryside, which change through backlighting to the mean streets of London in the second act. Three projection screens remind the audience the immediate location, and let the authors get in a comment or two. One of them also recorded the obligatory opening announcement with dry British flair. Pamela Scofield's costumes suggest the period with a few sly modernizations, such as bell bottoms on London finery, and a safari shirt on the wild Irishman. The modern palette introduced in the London sequences is more jarring than need be, however, under theatrical lighting by Donald Holder, who suggests period footlights at times, while also using programmed follow for several numbers.
As the title character, David Burnham, best known for replacing Donny Osmond in the extended tour of "...Technicolor Dream Coat", certainly looks the part. Burnham works his way into the audience's affection, though perhaps not early enough. Angela Gaylor, as Sophia Western, the neighbor's daughter and Tom's true love, has a wonderful entrance right out of the 18th century, and a winning voice which blends well with her co-star. There's no solo number to really take advantage of her vocal abilities, heard in her previous NSMT appearance as Julie in "Carousel". As Blifil, Tom's villainous half-brother, the third featured player, Jeremy Webb, has some of the most interesting music in the show, and makes every note count. His black almost modern costume accentuates his second act address to the audience, "The World's Delights". The contrast between these three interesting characters, smartly embodied by these three talented young performers, would be strengthened by a shared number near the finale.
Nevertheless, there are musical riches enough throughout the show. "Tom Jones", despite the focus on the title character, is an ensemble show, from the prologue number "Behold", which sets up the complicated story to the wildly operatic first act finale. Then as the plot thickens in the second half, the ten members of the supporting cast shift between their named roles and decadent members of higher society, members of Lady Bellaston's set. This arch role is stunningly realized by Sara Gettelfinger, who's heading back to Broadway next season. Gettlefinger also plays Tom's real mother, Bridget Allworthy, in the first half, which has interesting Freudian implications.
It's hard to single out any particular members of the ensemble, each of whom has notable moments. Michelle Ragusa's, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, is the wonderfully comic instigator of many of plot twists, as she flees her mad husband and unsuccessfully lusts after Tom. Sheri Sanders, as Molly, the gamekeeper's daughter, Tom's first fling--among many--and Susan the maid-of-all-work at the inn is innocently erotic. The older men, Larry Daggett, as Mr. Allworthy, Tom's forgiving adoptive grandfather, Tim Jerome, as Squire Western, Sophia's rough but loving father, and Bill Buell, as Mr. Partridge the Latin teacher, Tom's supposed father, provide a firm ground for the hijinks, and keep Fielding's emphasis on responsibility in perspective.
As Tom and Blifil's tutor, Mr. Thwackum, who aids the latter's schemes, Ron Wisniski is appropriately oily and excessively contrite at the end as expected. Watch for his uncredited turn as Cupid. Laura Marie Duncan as Mrs. Waters gets to briefly reprise the famous eating scene from the movie--almost the only nod to that landmark--before moving on to more explicit activities with Tom. Stephen Bienskie, as Mr. Fitzpatrick wildly in pursuit of his wayward wife, is all energy, as befits the dance captain. Barbara McCulloh is all indolence as the landlady at the inn, and kindhearted as Tom's landlady in London, and the only female member of the cast not specifically involved with Tom--for good reason. The actual family relations between this comic tribe are revealed at the end, of course, but don't bother to check your Cliff notes until after the show. The surprises in the penultimate scene are headspinning. Besides, several characters are composited from Fielding's sprawling parade of English types.
How far "Tom Jones - the Musical" will get into the big time remains to be seen. The show seems particularly suited for NSMT free-wheeling circus atmosphere and could get lost behind a proscenium. Moments of period drama contrasted with current sensibilities are intriguing. The momentuum of development and the enthusiasm of the hard-working cast makes this current production electric, if somewhat diffuse. One more actor, playing the narrator/author himself would help tie things together, take over some of the ensembles' more random duties, and help move the action along.
The first half still needs tightening, though exactly what to omit or at least shorten is unclear. Some scenes would be stronger sung-through. Certain characters, like Mrs. Fitzpatrick for example, might benefit from more musical identification, though certain key tunes already stick in the ear. Moreover, a three act structure echoing the "in the country, on the road, and finally in London" movement of the orginal novel would make the action clearer. If the piece gets exposure, "Tom Jones" could easily become a regional and collegiate favorite, regardless of its fate on the Great White Way. Finally, changing the subtitle, perhaps to "- a Musical Progress", would distinguish this show from the host of mediocre film adaptations all labeled "-the Musical." But quibbles aside, Stiles, Leigh, and all, including the dedicated staff of NSMT led by Jon Kimbell, can be proud of this effort, which is far more satisfying than any of the tired retreads which have been zipping through Boston lately.
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