In one sense, Chris Kelly’s production of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” opening Friday in the New Phoenix Theatre takes place right where Mark Twain set it: along the banks of the Mississippi River in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Mo.
But in another, Kelly suggested in a recent interview about Laura Eason’s minimalist adaptation of the famous tale, it occupies blurry borderland between boyhood and manhood, that strange space where mischievousness and responsibility battle it out for top position.
The production, like the book, is packed with thrills and adventures involving buried treasure, ghost stories and fugitives from the law. But underneath all of that, Kelly said, “it’s trying to capture the heart of childhood and that space in between: How do choices you make and experiences you have inform the person or man you’re going to become?”
Kelly and the tight-knit group of actors he’s assembled for this production, led by Brandon Barry as Tom Sawyer and Joseph Donahue as Huck Finn, answer that question in some unexpected ways.
For one, the show features live music and sound effects performed by cast members, many of whom also play multiple characters. Before the show starts, theatergoers will be greeted by an ethereal soundscape meant to evoke the sounds of the Mississippi, which will give way to a four-song set from the show’s central performers meant to ease the audience into Twain’s story.
During the play, there are no recorded sound cues or music. All the sounds in the show come from live performers creating sound effects in much the same way as Foley artists do for film and radio.
“There’s people on the side of the stage with buckets of water making splash sounds and sort of ambient noises when they’re sitting by the water,” Kelly said, calling the effects “ensemble-driven soundscapes.”
“We have to pick and choose how much of that we can do especially because we need the people to play the characters as well.”
Kelly’s aesthetic is intrinsically playful and almost defiantly DIY. Like a confident magician coasting along on charm, he doesn’t bother with sleight of hand. He lets the audience see the wires. And instead of ruining the trick as it might for someone less sure of himself, that revelation deepens its effect by letting the audience in on the game and making them feel like co-conspirators in a way more prim and proper productions wouldn’t dare.
That approach has driven some of Kelly’s most memorable efforts, especially his dustbowl version of “Oliver!” at MusicalFare Theatre in 2011 and his maniacal and camp-inflected production of “Robin Hood” at Theatre of Youth in March.
He is also known for working closely with members of Buffalo band the Albrights (Barry and Donahue are members), which has given many of his productions a built-in musicality. For this production, he said, the central cast’s familiarity with one another lends a sense of authenticity to their performances.
“There’s a few points where Huck, Tom Sawyer and their friend Joe Harper run away and become pirates. And it’s great. You just couldn’t create the chemistry the three of them have together because they’re such good friends,” he said.
The production, which also features Renee Landrigan, Kevin Craig, Anthony Alcocer and John Kaczorowski among others, also relates to the region’s built-in connect to Twain, who once lived in Buffalo. Kelly said he’s hoping some nontheater fans who merely have an affinity for Twain’s writing will make their way to the theater for a show that presents its own stylized take on a timeless piece of literature.