Catch the Mist, Catch the Myth 

Nashville Children's Theatre presents generally satisfying production of Mark Twain's timeless adventure tale

Nashville Children's Theatre presents generally satisfying production of Mark Twain's timeless adventure tale

Nashville Children's Theatre is at it again, this time entertaining hordes of youngsters with a charming production based on one of the great Mark Twain's more revered novels. The names and places here—Becky Thatcher, Injun Joe, Aunt Polly, McDougal's Cave—are very famous ones in American literature, and include, of course, the dynamic duo of Tom Sawyer and his pal Huckleberry Finn.

The adaptation is by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, etc.), with the script enhanced by the music and lyrics of legendary country songwriter Don Schlitz ("The Gambler," "On the Other Hand," "When You Say Nothing At All").

Distilling Twain's classic work of fiction down to a 70-minute entertainment takes some doing, but it's largely successful, and the high points of the tale are touched upon with general good humor, the proceedings taking a darker turn with the murder of the town doctor. Scot Copeland's direction is satisfying, and strong performances from Jonathan Root (as Tom) and Pete Vann (as Huck) help to keep us focused on the adventures as well as the folksiness of 19th century small-town Missouri life. Vann's scene with Carol Ponder, who plays the Widow Douglas, is a sheer delight, the older woman tutoring the savvy, street-smart but illiterate Huck on the basics of phonics. When he starts to cue in to the magic of words, we celebrate with him.

Curiously enough, as good as the Schlitz songs are—professionally crafted, straight-ahead country-folk—they actually disrupt the action in places where the NCT audience of pre-teens seems totally engaged with the story and characters. (In most musicals, everyone's always waiting for the songs. In this case, the kids got a little restless.) Root proves to be a pretty fair vocalist. Otherwise, the singing is capable if unexceptional.

Other actors making solid contributions are Rona Carter, Jeff D. Boyet and Jenny Littleton, who apparently is the busiest actor in town. (See the Trojan Women review.) Reliable Henry Haggard is also on hand to fulfill his usual complement of character roles.

The accompanying band of guitar, fiddle, banjo and bass is led by musical director Paul Carrol Binkley and features the talents of Eddie Clayton, Toni Ferguson and Pete Huttlinger. Ponder also sits in on the autoharp for one number. Band members step into the action for a couple of cameo roles, and they acquit themselves stylishly.

There's nothing particularly innovative about this effort, but good acting and the magic of Mark Twain's vivid Americana make for a winning formula. The production continues at NCT's Hill Theatre through May 14.

—Martin Brady

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