If only all of "Tom Sawyer" were as fresh as Heidi Ettinger's sets. This musical version of Mark Twain's portrait of boyhood on the Mississippi has a cast that gives 150%, a book that turns the episodic novel into a compelling story and an amiable score. But the overall impression it makes is of strong marketing rather than creative theater. In the last few years, a surprising "market" has developed for shows to which the whole family can go. (Broadway prices are apparently no deterrent.) It was the Disney people who discovered this market with "Beauty and the Beast."
When it opened, I predicted it would close quickly because every family had already seen the movie and owned the video. How wrong could I have been? Its longevity has inspired the creation of other such shows. "Tom Sawyer" is an obvious choice. Unlike its sequel, "Huckleberry Finn," "Tom Sawyer" does not address major themes in American life. It is basically an adventure story, but one that has woven itself into the fabric of American consciousness - there are few examples of "entrepreneurship" as cherished as that of Tom coaxing his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly's fence. What's wonderful about Ettinger's scenery (which, if I recall, was also the high point of "Big River," the 1985 musical about Huck Finn) is that it captures this quality of primal Americana so beautifully. Many of her sets are like folk art. Equally American, however, is the innovative way she uses planes of wood glued together, shaped into curving masses and gleamingly polished. Sometimes these huge blocks create undulating hills reminiscent of those in Grant Wood paintings. Ettinger uses them with particular artistry to create the constantly changing contours of the cave in which Tom and Becky Thatcher get lost. If I'm devoting an inordinate amount of space to the sets, it's because there isn't a whole lot to say about Don Schlitz' score. Schlitz is a successful country songwriter (among his credits is Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler"). His first Broadway score is creditable but not very exciting. The most fetching song is "This Time Tomorrow," superbly sung by Linda Purl as Aunt Polly, who, in this moment, shows the quiet concern beneath her vexed exterior. Much of the score, though, is simplistic and emotionally uninvolving. Ken Ludwig has done a remarkable job in adapting the meandering story into a cohesive narrative, but it would work better if the music had more drive. Director Scott Ellis has infused the cast with great energy. Joshua Park is a very appealing Tom, a wonderful combination of innocence and spunk. He and Purl work well together. Jim Poulos has a slightly goofy, oddly poignant quality as Huck. Jane Connell is expectedly funny as his surrogate mother, the Widow Douglas. Kristen Bell is charming as Becky, and John Dossett is properly elegant as her father. Tom Aldredge is such a canny actor, you might imagine Muff Potter was a leading role. Kevin Durand is menacing as Injun Joe. There is solid comic work by John Christopher Jones as the schoolmaster and Marshall Pailet as Tom's goody-goody brother Sid. As a musicalization of a beloved book, "Tom Sawyer" is unsatisfying. As a vehicle to fill a market niche, it will probably work very well.
It always sounds strangely disparaging to say that a show seems a good one for children, but - very sorry - that is precisely what the new musical "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," which opened last night at the Minskoff Theatre, seems to be.
Any adults wandering in, accompanied by a kid or not, can pretty much count on having a pleasant and mildly jolly time. But if I were them, I would kidnap a kid first.
Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" is a wonderfully picaresque novel, certainly not of the stature of its sequel, "Huckleberry Finn," yet still one of the major works of 19th century literature.
And while Ken Ludwig, writer of the new musical's book, has remained moderately fair to the Twain original, neither he nor the composer and lyricist, country songwriter Don Schlitz, have got a sense of Twain's special ironic flavor.
We do get most of the story - much of it squeezed together - but the house where the gold is discovered has gone, as has Jackson's Island, and the three who turn up for their own funeral are Tom, Huck and Becky, with the latter replacing Joe Harper, who has virtually disappeared.
Also I imagine that Twain might be very surprised to find Becky's father, Judge Thatcher, finding a love interest in Tom's Aunt Polly!
Still, the book remains serviceable enough, its choices are sensible, and it bustles the story along with something of the novel's energy, despite its inability to handle Twain's characteristic diversions.
Yet you do get such key scenes as Tom painting the fence, the dead-cat cure for warts, and, of course, the villainy of Injun Joe.
The music is altogether less effective. Schlitz, who had a hit with his first recorded song, "The Gambler," sung by Kenny Rogers, and has since become a four-time Country Songwriter of the Year, has managed to provide a score that is curiously characterless.
It is impossible to look at this "Tom Sawyer" and not compare it with "Big River," that 1985 musical based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by William Hauptman and the late Roger Miller.
Although "Big River" definitely had, in the words of one its songs, its "muddy water," Miller not only revealed a wit but also a theatricality that Schlitz's pleasantish score for "Tom Sawyer" conspicuously lacks.
At least theatricality is not lacking in Scott Ellis' staging, and he makes the most of such episodes as the graveyard scene, the trial of that amnesiac drunk, Muff Potter, and Injun Joe's demise, itself far more spectacular than in the novel.
Heidi Ettinger - who, coincidentally won one of her Tony Awards for her designs for "Big River" - has done a sensationally clever job in providing the scenery here, based on a permanent curving slide and staircase that is adroitly adapted for the entire show.
Unfortunately the attractive, toy-town settings are not always appropriate, and they provide the show with a cartoonish look which is frequently out of step with both the Twain original and its current treatment.
Yet it is bright and colorful, as are the stylish costumes by Anthony Powell, with the whole show intelligently lit, and in the more atmospheric scenes truly illuminated, by Kenneth Posner.
The performances are perhaps more unexceptional than outstanding. All of them are what one would expect them to be, although one might have hoped for them to be unexpectedly better.
Joshua Parks, in his Broadway debut, makes a perky, rascally, engaging Tom, but never really threatens to set the Mississippi on fire. And his competent partners in adventure, Jim Poulos' attractive Huck Finn and Kristen Bell's winsome Becky, also seem devoid of any dangerous incendiary tendencies.
More interesting are some of the lesser characters, Kevin Serge Durand's massively threatening Injun Joe, Tom Aldredge's scraggily decrepit Muff Potter, John Christopher Jones as a nicely bumbling schoolmaster, Tommy Hollis's impressive Reverend Sprague, and best of all those strange lovebirds, Linda Purl as Aunt Polly and John Dossett as Judge Thatcher.
I think children up to about 14 will like it - even the scary bits. For the rest of us . . . think of this . . . you could have ended up at "Seussical."
The original ''Adventures of Tom Sawyer'' is fundamentally a children's story, but it is a story viewed from the distance of adulthood by a sly and skeptical adult. In their new musical version of the novel, Ken Ludwig and Don Schlitz mean, I think, to honor this split personality. But instead of being a layered work with appeal for both children and grown-ups, the tame, middle-of-the-road show that opened on Broadway at the Minskoff Theater yesterday feels muddled and torn.
On the one hand, without the subtle cluck of Mark Twain's subversiveness, it merely peddles a mild social contract: reading is good, honesty is good, looking after others is good; violence, alcoholism and self-importance are bad. On the other hand -- and much more distressing -- the show is never chaotic enough, never frenetic enough to capture the unharnessed exuberance of childhood that Twain was writing about, the kind that, for both good and ill, is threatened by growing up.
That Tom himself has been aged by the show's creators, poised between child and adult, is particularly telling. Twain never specified Tom's age, but it certainly wasn't 14, as it is here. Played by Joshua Park, an athletic, coltish actor with the curly mop and wholesome smile of a teen heartthrob, Tom is ''a boy on the verge of manhood,'' according to the script.
His semimaturity sparks up the romance between him and Becky Thatcher. And it solves a casting problem, since the show requires actors and singers with adult stamina. But like the show, Tom has to be two things at once, and that creates more confusion than it clears up. Nobody seems to have noticed that even though he's past puberty, he still thinks and acts like a little boy; he first tries to impress Becky (Kristen Bell) by waxing proud over the local plenitude of worms.
Of course, that is the complaint of a finicky theatergoer, the kind who is often accused of being a spoilsport, too eager to find fault and unwilling to yield to simple delight. And it's true, I think, that young audience members and other theater beginners will be able to find enough here to hold their attention.
For instance, the set is a little cheesy-looking, but its movable props -- the foreboding, gated entrance to a graveyard; a two-dimensional tree in the shape of a tennis racket -- have the seductive familiarity of a giant Playskool kit. And its permanent fixture is an abstract landscape made of wood that suggests nothing so much as a skateboard park, over which the director, Scott Ellis, spills a steady parade of energetic boys and girls.
In the second act, which is far more propulsive and engaging than the first, the scenic designer, Heidi Ettinger, and the lighting designer, Kenneth Posner, do come up with a lovely and enticing idea. It's the interior of a cave that is an aptly exciting environment for Tom's most titillating adventure: being lost in the dark with Becky and on the run from his nemesis, the murderous Injun Joe (Kevin Durand).
Here as elsewhere, Mr. Ludwig's book does a nifty job of condensing the novel, maintaining its episodic character but cleverly joining elements from different scenes to keep the narrative bobbing along. Fans of the novel will notice, for example, that the runaway camping trip by Tom, Huck Finn and Joe Harper is excised. But Mr. Ludwig has found a suitable place for an altered version of its concluding episode, in which the boys return to witness their own funeral.
Still, for the most part I had the nagging sense that the show never aspires to real creativity, merely to achieve the lowest level of acceptability, to be good enough to engage those new to Broadway but not better than that. Undermining the book's structural deftness is a lazy bone. Mr. Ludwig includes several joke lines I had heard elsewhere, borrows dialogue from television courtroom drama for the lawyers during the trial of Injun Joe and makes a pompous teacher look foolish by having him mispronounce every French word in a French lesson, a device so hoary and juvenile that it seems to embarrass John Christopher Jones, the usually amusing actor who is stuck with it.
Mr. Schlitz, a Grammy-winning composer of country songs (including ''The Gambler''), has written a handful of winning tunes, among them ''This Time Tomorrow,'' a plaintive ballad about how fast children grow, sung by Tom's Aunt Polly (Linda Purl), and ''It Just Ain't Me,'' a pleasingly defiant declaration by Huck (Jim Poulos). But mostly his score relies on abbreviated phrases and simplistic tick-tock rhythms. Moreover, the frequently zippy tempo of the arrangements garbles the lyrics and makes you wonder what the hurry is. Embarrassment?
Especially disappointing is that in this, his first musical, he seems to have turned his back on what he excels at, which would be genuinely original and welcome on a Broadway stage. There are some country-ish arrangements for his songs, but you'll wait in vain for a twangy melody with any kind of melancholy swagger. Mr. Schlitz has opted for a passing grade in Show Music 101.
The choreography, by David Marques, is energetic, but he is hampered by a very young company with evidently limited training. It isn't the most precise ensemble I've ever seen.
And finally, the casting is simply bland. There are exceptions: Mr. Poulos, a handsome sandy blond Huck (wipe his face and put a blazer on him, and he'd fit in at any prep school) isn't a formidable presence, but he does have some charm and charisma and a light touch with a song. His duet with the Widow Douglas (Jane Connell), who is teaching him to read, is a highlight. In a small part, Marshall Pailet as Sid, Tom's annoyingly ingratiating, goody-two-shoes brother, renders a particularly oily variation on Little Lord Fauntleroy.
But Mr. Park does not yet have the chops for a title role, and he isn't a particularly strong singer, especially in the lower register, where much of his vocal part is located. With the exception of his appearance in a brief and effectively staged nightmare, Mr. Durand's Injun Joe isn't all that scary, just lanky, brittle-limbed and deep-voiced. Ms. Bell, as a pretty and demure Becky, hardly leaves an impression. And Ms. Purl, with an opportunity in her solo song to stop the show, doesn't.
That there is hardly an actor in the cast capable of commanding the stage is underscored when finally, in the end, one does. That is Tommy Hollis, the big-voiced Reverend Sprague, and he makes you glad that the musical makes more of the preacher's authority in town than Twain did.
Over all, the most troubling thing about ''The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'' is that it wants to please but settles for palliating. It is primerlike theater, and the young audiences who will appreciate it most will be reassured by its ''Sesame Street'' qualities. But they will also never miss what isn't there: more fun.
It's not just the famous fence that gets whitewashed in the latest Broadway trip to the bookshelf of Mark Twain. Huck and Tom and even Injun Joe get a good scrubbing behind the ears, too, in this sunny and handsome but deflatingly bland musical adaptation of the Twain classic. The show is a pleasant two hours of family entertainment, but Broadway is surfeited with high-profile kid-friendly shows at the moment, and "Tom Sawyer" may have a hard time wrassling himself a sufficient piece of the B.O. pie.
Comparisons to "Big River," the hit musical adapted from "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," are inevitable and not likely to favor the new show, which features a book by Ken Ludwig ("Crazy for You," "Lend Me a Tenor") and songs by Don Schlitz, a pop-country composer best known for the Kenny Rogers hit "The Gambler."
In truth, many of the new musical's deficiencies in comparison to "Big River" may stem directly from the source material: In structure, execution and theme, "Huckleberry Finn" is the superior book by some measure. While it cunningly tells the story of a boy's moral awakening and subtly condemns the inhumanity of slavery, "Tom Sawyer" is really just a larking, episodic grab bag of images from a Deep South country childhood.
The book's lighthearted spirit is neatly captured in the show's lively opening number, "Hey, Tom Sawyer," in which Tom (Joshua Park) and his cohorts race up and down Heidi Ettinger's stylish, sweeping wooden set, energetically getting up to no good while Tom's Aunt Polly (Linda Purl) and the townsfolk voice their exasperation with the town rascal. Schlitz's country-style score has many charming highlights and infectious melodies -- among them an aching, lovely solo, "This Time Tomorrow," for Purl's nicely etched Aunt Polly. But it could use more real tang and variety; the chicken-fried, perky fiddle-based songs for Huck and Tom seem interchangeable, while the moody, declamatory numbers for Injun Joe might have wandered in from a Frank Wildhorn musical.
Ludwig has done an able job of stitching together a single narrative from the rambling collection of boyhood adventures in Twain's novel, even if the show retains some of the ambling, unfocused style of the book. The first act climax is the shiver-inducing moment when Tom identifies Injun Joe (Kevin Duran) as the real killer of Doc Robinson and the miscreant flies out a courthouse window. The second act mostly takes place inside the cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher get lost. Ludwig tosses Huck and Injun Joe down there too, for a tidy climax that may be a trifle violent for youngsters (a disturbing wail of terror arose from row G when Injun Joe took a knife to Becky's throat).
Ettinger's marvelous set plays a major role in this act, as its wood-slatted pieces slide in and out like pieces of a kaleidoscope to suggest the various recesses of the cave; above, Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher fret against a handsome expanse of sky. Kenneth Posner's artful, gem-colored lighting is beautifully deployed to add to the eerie atmosphere.
At other times, however, this essentially small-scaled musical is somewhat dwarfed by the size of the Minskoff stage. Perhaps to disguise the somewhat lonely look of the town, director Scott Ellis encourages plenty of spirited leaping and frolicking on the part of the youngsters (or not-so-youngsters: the actor playing Tom is 24), but he is not aided by the dull choreography of David Marques. Two additional choreographers are credited in the program, making one wonder how it took three people to come up with the decidedly unjubilant and unimaginative reel for the big dance number, "You Can't Can't Dance."
Dancing aside, the cast can't bring a lot of personality to characterizations that have been largely scrubbed free of any rough edges. Park's Tom is just a big broad smile surrounded by a swirl of dark curls, while Jim Poulos' Huck Finn is practically sanctified. Even Injun Joe is stolid and rather chicly dressed in Anthony Powell's costumes, hardly the creepy figure of the book.
Joe also is given a few lines of exculpatory dialogue referring to his humiliating treatment at the hands of the townspeople, a mild feint toward political correctness that is continued in the show's color-blind casting. This is understandable in a family show that doesn't directly address the racism of the Deep South, but it's still a bit disconcerting to see black boys and white girls merrily dancing together in 19th-century Missouri.
It's also emblematic of the creators' thoughtful but uninspired approach to their material: They clearly have been at pains to avoid offending, but they seem to have forgotten the need to excite.