Soul Twain

Every country’s literature has its childhood heroes. In ours, they are Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Huck had his Broadway musical, Big River, a few years ago; now it is the turn of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Ken Ludwig’s book is not so much that of an adult musical suitable for children as that of a children’s musical suitable for adults. But parents, please note: No child who hasn’t learned to read and write is ready for the theater, even if the show features a principal character (Huck Finn) who cannot read or write. At the Tom Sawyer matinee I attended, I had within earshot several tots intent on sharing their noisy misery with their neighbors, and one of them had to be carried out on daddy’s shoulders, causing dad a loss almost as serious as that of the potential baby-sitter, deprived of an afternoon’s earnings.

You can’t say of novel and musical book that never the twain shall meet, for Ludwig has quite successfully compressed the novel and pared it down to its dramatic core. The problem – no laughing matter – is the score and the dances. This musical-comedy firstling by Don Schlitz is anodyne stuff except for the ballads, which are worse. David Marques’s similarly fledgling Broadway choreography never rises above the serviceable. So what saves Sawyer from sinking?

First, the sets by Heidi Ettinger, who also did those for Big River, but here surpasses herself. They are at once snazzy illustrations for a children’s book and a spoof to delight the kiddies’ parents. Sometimes benign, sometimes boding, they culminate fearsomely in the cave scene. Kenneth Posner’s lighting, Anthony Powell’s costumes, and Michael Starobin’s orchestrations contribute their not inconsiderable bit.

Under Scott Ellis’s user-friendly direction, Joshua Park (Tom), Jim Poulos (Huck), and Linda Purl (Aunt Polly) aptly head a cast in which Kevin Serge Durand (Injun Joe), Tom Aldredge (Muff Potter), and Jane Connell (Widow Douglas) are also outstanding. And the rest staunchly hold their own. Shows have been known to make it on less.

The road paved with good intentions does not always lead directly to hell; sometimes it detours via Broadway. This explains the transfer from the Jewish Repertory Theater to the Cort of The Gathering, a not-quite-first play by 60-year-old Arje Shaw, mounted by a large array of producers, one of whom seems to be born every minute.

The play centers on grandfather Gabe, a concentration-camp survivor and sculptor, working on a bust of Muhammad Ali, when his grandson, Michael, soon to be bar mitzvahed, drops in. The “little kocker” is to rehearse his Hebrew recitation with his zayde, but prefers to indulge in some grandfatherly chicken soup and look forward to the time when the zayde will call him Michael rather than boychik. Jewish lore notwithstanding, 13 is no more guarantee of manhood than 60 is of maturity.

Michael’s mother, Diane, arrives to fetch her son. Of Irish descent, she converted to Judaism to marry Stuart Stern, a prominent speech writer for Ronald Reagan and proud of it. The next scene is the weekly Shabbes dinner cooked by Diane, whom Gabe calls mamele while denying her full-fledged Jewish status. You’ll want to know that the dinner comprises “challah, salad, chopped liver, chicken soup with noodles and kreplach, stuffed veal, brisket, Belgium carrots, and rugalach for dessert.” Gabe tells her she’s “an e-m’-se ay-shis cha-yil,” which he translates as “a woman of valor.” If nothing else, The Gathering is the equivalent of a beginner’s course in Yiddish.

The dinner is fraught with dissension between Gabe, who accuses his son of denying his Jewishness, and Stuart, who berates his father for being a Holocaust fanatic. Things come to a head when a phone call from Pat Buchanan (or, as the script has it, Buchannan) summons Stuart to Washington. Reagan is off to Germany and will visit the Bitburg cemetery, where German war dead – according to Gabe, all Nazis – are resting, though not if Gabe can help it.

In the second act, Gabe has kidnapped Michael and (improbably) taken him to the Bitburg cemetery for a prayer protest against the presidential visit. The cemetery is watched over (more improbably) by a single German soldier, Egon, who is as good as gold. They are soon joined (most improbably) by Stuart and Diane in hot pursuit. The absurdity of this act is beyond description, let alone belief. My heart goes out to all the actors, except Hal Linden, who, as Gabe, is a perfect ham, and thus the only unkosher thing about this play.

A new, only modestly successful revival of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart brought back fond memories of the original Off and then on Broadway production. The play concerns three southern sisters: a wallflower, a kook, and a failed singer but successful sexpot. We also get their bossy cousin; the sexpot’s former, now married but still yearning, lover; and the sweet novice lawyer with a vendetta against the kook’s rich, middle-aged husband, who defends the kook after she’s shot hubby in the stomach because she doesn’t like his voice and looks.

As you may gather, the play concerns that comic-heartbreaking South, which, whether or not true to life, is faithful to literary tradition and myth. It is easily Miss Henley’s best work and should charm anyone not averse to its sentimental-grotesque mode. None of the performers is bad, though each lacks a certain basic appeal. They cannot overcome the overdirection by the Irish director Garry Hynes, which makes the production more fussy than funny. I am not sure how Crimes of the Heart will affect those who cherish the memory of the original; newcomers, however, should find enough to their liking.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
At the Minskoff Theatre.
The Gathering
At the Cort Theatre.
Crimes of the Heart
At the Second Stage Theatre.

Soul Twain