The South Coast Repertory Young Conservatory Players kicks off its 10th season with a handsome, ambitious adaptation of Mark Twain's salty "Tom Sawyer."
Graveyards at midnight, murder, buried treasure--Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" is no namby-pamby kid story, and Sara Spencer's stage version is true to the book. We see Huck's dead cat, unrepentant truancies, young love, clay pipes and tobacco, grave-robbing, drunken Muff Potter, wicked Injun Joe and the fateful stabbing.
But the Players, a non-professional ensemble of 10-to-17-year-olds directed by Diane Doyle, go respectably through their paces, surprisingly uninvolved in the spicy goings-on that may seem too tame in this age of Rambo and Luke Skywalker.
It all takes place in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Dwight Richard Odle's beautifully detailed set of wooden planks and Missouri flora is surrounded by Aunt Polly's white-washed fence. The cast members wear Odle's perfect costumes--the girls in pinafores and ribbons, the boys in worn britches, dangling suspenders and clumpy, scuffed shoes. Donna Ruzika's evocative lighting expertly sets the mood.
However, Marcus Garcia's Injun Joe lacks the force to seem threatening, Huck and Tom (Brendon Newman and Martin Noyes) seem barely shaken at witnessing murder. Emotion is missing altogether from Tom and Becky's funeral--Pat Shaw as Aunt Polly appears to take the supposed death of her nephew as a minor irritant.
If the cast doesn't believe in what's happening on stage, how can the audience?
Since its move last year from South Coast Repertory's small Second Stage to Founders Hall, the Players ensemble, graduates of South Coast's children's theater training program, has found room and support to grow.
Doyle is exploring new directions, extending the ensemble's reach. That's good. With the quality of South Coast Repertory's involvement and the obvious competence the Players possess with the fundamentals, there should be added challenges.
"Tom Sawyer" is one of the group's most serious productions to date and is also aimed at an older audience than previous productions. The Players have proved they can move around the stage and read lines. They have a chance now to dig deeper and find a little truth.
Performances in Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 4 p.m. Tickets: $5. Information: (714) 751-7827.