Yardley Players Presents Lively, Energetic Production of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'
Some things at Washington Crossing's Open Air Theatre never change: the backstage woods, the din of crickets, and the always challenging sound system. The walkway to audience seating has become less treacherous with the addition of handrails, and the spacious picnic areas are always a draw to get audiences out to the theater. One thing, however, that never changes is the Open Air Theatre's role as a locale for community organizations to present both the standard and more unusual works of musical theater.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, presented this past and next weekend by Yardley Players, is not readily known among musical theater aficionados. This show opened on Broadway in 2001, and although it was short-lived on the Great White Way, has found new life in touring and community productions. Ken Ludwig, the author of the Tony Award-winning Crazy For You and Lend Me a Tenor, adapted anecdotes from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set to music by Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz, who composed Kenny Rogers' signature song, "The Gambler." As Thursday night's opening show progressed at the Open Air Theatre, it became apparent that one of the problems in adapting anecdotes is stringing them together in a cohesive and flowing fashion without leaving the impression that there are too many things going on at once.
Yardley Players' opening of this production had the usual first night issues of balance, as the energetic and young cast grew more acquainted with the show and the outdoor setting. This was an unusually young cast, but one which was able to nevertheless convey the uneven storyline to the audience.
Much of Mr. Schlitz's musical score captures a strummed instrument musical style of the Deep South, although a bit monothematically. The music was significantly aided by an orchestra of banjo, mandolin, guitar, keyboard, and percussion led by Teresa Newman, who consistently excelled as lead pianist. The chorus ensemble scenes were well prepared by Ms. Newman and the musical numbers were kept upbeat.
As a character Tom Sawyer is timeless. Recent high school graduate Alexander Mandell seemed a bit tall for the fourteen-year-old Sawyer, but kept his acting youthful and energetic. He certainly had no trouble manipulating the songs with a light tenor voice, and he played well to the audience. His partner in crime, Huck Finn, was equally as well sung by Michael D. Steele. Alison Barton, a student at the Somerset County Performing Arts High School, joined the trio as Becky Thatcher, carrying her role with experience that belies her years.
The most seasoned performer on the stage, Shirley Murphy, clearly brought professional-level experience to her role as Tom's Aunt Polly. As Injun Joe, Joe Martin (also the director of the show) brought a solid bass voice to a role that suffered most from the plot's lack of cohesiveness. Neil Mandell brought comic relief to the show in the part of street drunk Muff Potter. Yardley Players refreshingly filled the rest of the cast with a number of student performers, all of whom were well prepared in their singing and with Jane Coult's choreography.
Theater ensembles have learned to cope creatively with the outdoor setting of the Open Air Theatre, and this show was particularly conducive to using the hills and trees surrounding the stage. Scenic Designer Mike Alstedt created indoor sets that were easy to move and an innovative outdoor cave for the closing scenes of the second act.
It is possible that this show plays better in an indoor theater, where the audience can be drawn into the production. Mark Twain's books were not just stories, but social commentaries on American life in the mid-1800s, and any issues of racial disparity concerning Injun Joe's role were lost in dialogue and scenes that dragged (fault of the libretto, not the actors). Of all the subplots possible in the play, Mr. Martin wisely downplayed the romance between Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher's father Judge Josiah Thatcher (played by Scott Karlin), which was the most predictable of the underlying stories. Tom and Becky's near-death experience in the cave seemed to come out of nowhere and did not appear to link to any previous issues in the play. However, for pure entertainment, there are many good things that this production has gone past the libretto to create, including the energy of the cast and liveliness of the music.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will continue
at Washington Crossing's Open Air Theatre July 27-30. Ticket information
can be obtained by calling the Open Air Theatre box office at