History Made Fun 

Nashville Children’s Theatre entertains and informs with tale based on legendary American figure

Nashville Children’s Theatre entertains and informs with tale based on legendary American figure

Franklin’s Apprentice

Presented by Nashville Children’s Theatre at Hill Theatre, 724 Second Ave. S. Weekend Family Series shows 2:30 p.m. Feb. 2-3

For tickets, call 254-9103

It says here that good theater always entertains; it doesn’t necessarily have to teach a lesson. Children’s theater, however, has sometimes been skewered for cloyingly teaching lessons without offering one whit of entertainment.

Thankfully, local theatergoers get the best of both worlds in the new Nashville Children’s Theatre production of Franklin’s Apprentice. This interesting script, written by Laurie Brooks, tells the story of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. Yet Brooks gets at this combination of American history and science in a charming and thoroughly affecting manner.

The plot is straightforward enough. In colonial Philadelphia, the great man Franklin happens upon a “magician” named Spencer who performs tricks that involve sending a current of electricity through the suspended body of an assistant, an orphan boy named John. Seeing the danger and abuse that the young lad is subjected to, Franklin “buys off” the boy from Spencer. Franklin then takes John on as his apprentice, charged with assisting in his home experiments with electrical properties.

John becomes a part of the Franklin household, befriending Franklin’s daughter Sally along the way. Unfortunately, his presence becomes a little threatening to Franklin’s son William, who has heretofore worked closely with his father but also has constantly—and frustratingly—sought his approval. Meanwhile, the local minister looks askance at Franklin and his experiments, deeming them “ungodly.” More complications ensue when the magician Spencer resurfaces, claiming that Franklin did not legally “acquire” the boy.

In the course of these events, a wealth of important human and social issues are examined. Author Brooks manages to weave into her tale a sensibility about integrity and the role legalities play in our society; she profiles the nature of father-son relationships; she extols the values and rewards of reading; she decries ignorance and superstition; she stresses the importance of safety first in the pursuit of scientific experimentation. Finally, we learn that God and science are not in opposition.

Best of all, these issues are considered with little sense of preachiness—they are dealt with quite seamlessly in the context of the story. Furthermore, if the targeted audience is children, we adults certainly benefit from the refresher course as well.

The production is characteristic of NCT, which is to say of high quality throughout. In particular, there are marvelous special electrical effects that always fascinate, occasionally startle, and maintain a wonderful sense of anticipation and visual tension throughout. Hats off to Scott Leathers, Kelly Wiegand and Anne L. Willingham, who pull them off with the appropriate caution yet with ingratiating excitement and panache.

Scot Copeland directs a cast that, in the main, is quite good. Henry Haggard as Franklin offers his usual high-caliber performance, happily choosing to give us a robust and dynamic characterization devoid of the otherwise typically aged and/or blustery caricature. Robert Marigza is equally good as apprentice John, conveying a palpable sense of humility, an orphan’s sadness and a sincere gratitude and loyalty toward his new master. Brian Webb Russell, one of Nashville’s most versatile performers, handles two critical roles with deftness, lurching from the menace and evil of the magician Spencer to the well-intentioned Old World obtuseness of Rev. Rickersley. The winsome Brooke Bryant also has some nice moments as daughter Sally.

Jeff D. Boyet is the younger Franklin. He makes it through the proceedings sufficiently enough, though there’s some aloofness and lack of focus in his performance. Similarly, Patricia Taber—who also designed the appropriate costumes—is adequate but reads a tad awkwardly in the role of Franklin’s wife, Debbie. However, these performances certainly don’t affect the overall impact of this enjoyable and enlightening production.

Sound designer Dan Brewer provides some pleasant and appropriate incidental music featuring fiddle and harpsichord, which helps to set the mood and evoke time and place.

Franklin’s Apprentice proves yet again that Nashville Children’s Theatre is one of our city’s treasured performing arts resources. What’s more, you needn’t be a child to take in the company’s consistently professional output and emerge both entertained and educated.

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