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Family : 'Tom Sawyer' Is a Huck of a Good Show


NEWPORT BEACH — If'n a feller offers to swap some "Tom Sawyer" tickets for your prize marbles or even your gen-yoo-wine brass doorknob, you'd be right smart to take him up on it.

Adapted by Dave Barton and Matt Bond from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," this two-hour musical is as much fun as playing hooky on a perfect spring day. At the Newport Theatre Arts Center, it features 29 local children and adults under Terri Miller Schmidt's direction.

Barton and Bond's book and songs are a nice match for each other. The dialogue is rich and folksy and generally true to Twain's storytelling style, and the tunes are bright and countrified without being hokey. Leslie Holland's choreography is snappy, Schmidt's largely teen and preteen cast is high on energy, and the whole shebang is as entertaining for grown ups as it is for grade school kids, especially if they favor a slice of Americana with their entertainment.

It is set in St. Petersburg, Mo., in the 1840s, which is to say that some of the situations in the story are not exactly P.C. by 1990s standards. Barton and Bond don't make a big deal out of that, but they don't gloss over it either, like some youth theater productions have. Womenfolk get short shrift (the teacher punishes Tom by making him sit with the girls), Injun Joe is one ornery hombre, and the town drunk isn't hustled off to a rehabilitation center (though he is treated with a gentle dignity by the townsfolk--until they think he killed old Doc Robinson. Then they can't wait to see him swing).

The story's most famous scenes are intact, including the fence whitewashing, the witnessing of Doc's murder in the graveyard and the funeral the townsfolk hold when they think Tom and Huck have drowned in the Mississippi. But many have been condensed, either by the authors or the director in the interest of time. The repackaging generally works, though one wishes a few more minutes could have been spared to let us savor Twain's delightful language.

"Paintin' the Fence" with Tom and the neighborhood boys and "Catchin' Catfish" with Huck, Tom and the rest of the school kids are the musical high points. Holland's choreography is economical but lively and the kids in the cast pull it off well.

Alistair Tober suits Tom to a T. He has a devilish twinkle in his eye, a swagger to his step, an imagination that's a country mile long, and he knows how to work all three to his advantage, especially if it means catching the eye of Miss Becky Thatcher.

Cheryl Dowling plays Becky with a nice mixture of primness and youthful longing for adventure--especially if it comes in the company of Tom. Huck, the castoff boy whose carefree life is the envy of all the kids except him, is played with a nice touch of pathos by Matt Moore (although both Tober and Moore could stand to shake some of the hayseed off their hick accents).


The Newport Theatre Arts Center is a cozy house with a moderate-size stage and Schmidt makes use of all of it. The center aisle has become, alternately, an extension of Main Street, the gloomy road to the cemetery and the path from the schoolyard gate. Linda Garen-Smith's sets are simple, versatile and embellished with such niceties as slates and chalk for the school kids, and antique-looking crockery on Aunt Polly's table. Injun Joe's cave, accented by Mitch Atkins' moody (but sometimes too dark) lighting, is creepy enough to give some of the smaller ones in the house a good case of the willies.

* "Tom Sawyer," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 3. $8. (714) 631-0288. Running time: 2 hours.


Alistair Tober: Tom Sawyer

Cheryl Dowling: Becky Thatcher

Joyce Eriksen: Aunt Polly

Jonathan Hoover: Sid Sawyer

Monica Freriks: Cousin Mary

Lauren Stanley: Amy Lawrence

Matt Moore: Huck Finn

David Rivera: Injun Joe

Spider Madison: Muff Potter

A Newport Theatre Arts Center production, adapted by Dave Barton and Matt Bond from "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain. Producers: Brenda Abshear and Jeanne Nininger. Directed by Terri Miller Schmidt. Musical direction: Jolee Miller-White. Choreography: Leslie Holland. Sets: Linda Garen-Smith. Lights: Mitch Atkins. Costumes: Tom Phillips. Sound: John Hoover and Richard Castanon. Stage manager: Ashley Cappel.

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