KC Rep’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ is clever, creative — and skin-deep

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, in collaboration with three other regional theaters, gives us an inventive, high-spirited and somewhat endearing stage version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Good actors, effective music, creative movement choreography and evocative lighting all work together to make what essentially is high-end children’s theater a pleasant viewing experience.

Tim McKiernan as Tom Sawyer (Don Ipock/KC Rep)

Yet, despite its many obvious virtues, the piece is a bit of snooze. The problem may be all mine, because when I see a film or stage adaptation of “Tom Sawyer,” I inevitably think about its companion novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is superior in every way. “Huck Finn” is richer dramatically, morally and philosophically, and it moves with an epic sweep that makes it much more than a book for children.

In short, Huck and Jim go on a life-changing journey. But at the conclusion of “Tom Sawyer,” the kids at the center of the story are pretty much unchanged, despite having survived several scrapes with death.

But I wasn’t watching “Huck Finn” on Wednesday night. The show was “Tom Sawyer,” for better or worse.

What power this show generates can be traced directly to the actors, who deserve credit for handling the rustic dialogue — full of words like “some’eres” and “warn’t” —naturally enough that I never wanted to bolt for the exit.

Tim McKiernan plays Tom with wide-eyed sincerity and boundless energy. He finds a way to charm the audience, and he sells us on the character’s fears and enthusiasms. Robbie Tann gives us a dark-haired Huck in a performance that is tinged with an element of danger. Hayley Treider nicely executes a seemingly guileless turn as Becky Thatcher. Most impressive of all is Michael Nichols, who is ominous and hulking as Injun Joe, hilarious in his turn as a supercilious schoolmaster and equally amusing as a preacher in love with his own oratory.

The other actors are just fine as they leapfrog through multiple roles. That’s one of the clever solutions playwright Laura Eason and director Jeremy Cohen came up with to help them stage multi-character period piece with only eight actors. The scenic design by Dan Ostling is spare, deceptively simple and flexible. The show’s creative lighting design by Robert Wierzel is responsible for the shifting atmosphere as the story moves from one episode to the next. Lorraine Venberg’s costumes are to the point without being overly fussy. The music by Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht) is, for the most part, a mix of acoustic and electric guitars and complements the action without becoming distracting.

The show, like the book, is an episodic yarn and moves well — although I had to question whether this two-act show couldn’t have been compressed into 90 minutes with no intermission. But this isn’t a bad “Tom Sawyer.” Not bad at all. Viewers, however, might enhance their pleasure if they banish thoughts of all those other books Mark Twain wrote.

Read the interview with director Jeremy Cohen at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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