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CHILDREN'S THEATER REVIEW : Adventure Starts With 'Tom Sawyer'


MISSION VIEJO — A tot lot here, a carefully stocked mini mall there . . . City planners may knock themselves out designing "proper" hangouts for kids, but down Mission Viejo way, there's a new hot spot that blows their tidy formulas right out of the water.

For the past couple of months, a growing number of local youths have been hanging in a neat but colorless industrial park called the Mission Viejo Business Center.

The magnet: Children's Theatre Village, a fledgling youth theater company that, if all goes as planned, will turn out a family-oriented musical theater performance every month or two for, hopefully, a very long time.

Housed in the back room of a commercial costume-rental shop, the company debuted last weekend with a musical adaptation of "Tom Sawyer." The show, directed by CTV founder Denise Fenton and featuring 25 youngsters and a smattering of local adults, continues through Sunday.

The 8- to 15-year-old kids have spent their time well. Although this Frank Luther adaptation of Mark Twain's classic "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" has its faults (many tunes are forgettable and out of sync with the story's historical setting, and the compression of Twain's novel into an hourlong musical leaves only a trace of the author's remarkable wit), Fenton's lively cast makes the best of it, and then some.

Musical numbers are tight; visuals are simple and bright, and, when coupled with the cozy dimensions of the house (it seats 65, plus a few kids on the front-row mat), it adds up to an engaging, bite-size bit of family theater suitable for kindergartners and up.

Either by design or because she lacks storage space, Fenton tweaks our imaginations as soon as we enter the theater space. Lining three of the four walls are flats from unrelated shows, including a vine-covered cottage wall, the front of an imposing stone castle and a small forest of creepy-looking trees.

A proscenium arch built across part of the fourth wall frames a shallow stage. For "Tom Sawyer," it is decorated with little more than a cheery yellow shack and a picket fence. It makes for an intimate, behind-the-scenes atmosphere that should help get first-time theatergoers in the mood.

Fenton gets things rolling with a cute but unnecessary pre-show bit in which the Princess of Storyland (Meghan Marshall) gives tips on how to enjoy children's theater, down to the location of the restrooms.

Shortly afterward, the cast moseys on stage for "Big Missouri," the first of the show's many song-and-dance numbers.

For these, Fenton and choreographer Tod Kubo make good use of the stage's small space (and the cast members' varying dancing abilities) by splitting the crowd into two groups: a chorus that vamps on the sidelines and a six-member dance team that performs more complicated steps center stage. It works well for the audience, and probably saves smaller cast members from having their toes tromped.

Luther has set nearly all of the novel's most familiar scenes to song. It's a good hook for short attention spans, but it relegates Twain's masterful writing to the back seat.

The whitewash scene, Becky and Tom's courtship, even the description of the misfit Huck Finn become fodder for bouncy musical numbers that could have come straight from an episode of "Hee Haw."

The story's darker elements have been sweetened for young audiences, too. The murder of Doc in the graveyard goes by in a blink, and Tom's and Becky's moments in the cave that hides the murderous Injun Joe are more cozy than scary.

As Tom, Harley Bertram is a lovable scamp given to bug-eyed stares and conspiratorial grins and partners well with Ian Stone, who plays Huckleberry Finn with a nice mix of bravado tinged with childish uncertainty.

Marshall's Becky Thatcher is nobody's fool, and, although she had some trouble finding her pitch on Saturday night, she has one of the cast's strongest singing voices. (The parts of Becky and Huck are among several that are double cast; Tiffany Moon and Chad Bowman alternate in the roles.) Tricia Cannon was a standout in the dance ensemble.


Fenton, a 20-year veteran of Downey Civic Light Opera and a part-time musical theater instructor at a South County high school, said she opened her Masquerade Village Costumes in 1991 with hopes of starting a children's theater group.

Formerly housed in a shopping center, her business moved to its current location in December, and by January she had announced auditions for "Tom Sawyer." Fenton is applying for nonprofit status for the company, which will present two weekend runs of Broadway-style musicals. Future productions will include Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," "Into the Woods" and "Give My Regards to Broadway. . ."

A teen company will be formed this summer to present "Little Shop of Horrors," and in December, a mixed-age cast will stage an extended run of "The Little Christmas Forest."

* "Tom Sawyer," Children's Theatre Village, 23891 Via Fabricante, Suite 612, Mission Viejo. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturday-Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $5. Ends Sunday. (714) 588-8857. Running time: One hour. Denise Fenton Widow Douglas

Harley Bertram: Tom Sawyer

Chad Bowman, Ian Stone: Huck Finn

Tiffany Moon, Meghan Marshall: Becky Thatcher

Mary Lee Lindquist: Aunt Polly

Scott Kiker: Injun Joe

Chuck Verburg: Judge Thatcher, Preacher, Muff Potter

Presented by the Children's Theatre Village. Adapted by Frank Luther from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Set and costumes: Masquerade Village Costumes. Sound: Phil Barker.

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