Though he only lived in Buffalo for a short time, to hear the locals tell it, Mark Twain is Buffalo’s native son. And so it seems fitting that just a half-mile from Twain’s former residence on Delaware Avenue, the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park has brought arguably his most famous literary work, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” to life.
In a tribute to the theater, the cast and to Twain, a full house braved driving bans and 5 feet of snow to fill the New Phoenix on opening night. Those who made the trek were rewarded with one of the most up tempo, creative interpretations of the classic tale of Tom Sawyer you’ll ever see.
The first thing to notice about the show is the music. Before the lights even dim, you’ll be treated to a few songs from the cast to set the mood. From there, music plays an integral part in telling the tale of Tom Sawyer. If you are a fan of the Buffalo music scene, you’ll likely know why: You may recognize Tom and Huck as half of the award-winning band, The Albrights.
Question: If you are director Chris Kelly and his talented cast that includes Brandon Barry (Tom) and Joe Donohue (Huck) of the Albrights, how do you make your mark on one of the most iconic stories of all time? Answer: You infuse it with subtle, well-delivered humor, wonderful chemistry among the actors, and a level of energy that the crowd can’t help but find contagious.
It all begins with Barry, who is spectacular as Tom Sawyer. He doesn’t oversell the Southern twang in his voice, and gives the appropriate depth to a boy who is supposed to be a juxtaposition. He makes the case for Tom being a troublesome boy and a caring soul, a good friend and a selfish one, and a liar and a truth-seeker, all while leaving it up to the audience members to decide for themselves who the real Tom Sawyer is.
Likewise for Huck Finn. Donahue brings out Twain’s troubled side of Finn – a boy everyone wants to follow, but for all the wrong reasons. He also delivers on a long-debated theme in literary circles: Does Huck see Tom as more than just a friend? His jealousy when Tom becomes smitten with Becky Thatcher (Renee Landrigan) is palpable and his need for Tom’s attention plants the question.
As we follow Tom through the familiar story – a misguided boy, punished by his Aunt Polly, forced to whitewash the fence, drawn to Huck Finn, and led on an adventure that includes love, loss and murder, the tale is masterfully tied together by John Kaczorowski in the role of the play’s narrator. As he weaves in and out of the scenes, moving sets, telling stories, singing and playing instruments, he is magical to watch. And I do mean watch. His expressions and body language add immensely to the play without a word being spoken.
Landrigan is the right mix of sweet naiveté and scorned love as Tom’s fiancé, Becky Thatcher, and Anthony Alcocer steals most of the scenes he is in as the sinister Injun Joe. Both are part of a strong supporting cast that rounds out a production that will keep you smiling throughout the night.
From the cast, to the music, the set and the costumes, you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back in time to rural Missouri, circa 1840, and allowed a glimpse into the mind of Samuel Clemens, great American storyteller. Enjoy the ride.
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”
3.5 stars (Out of four)
On stage through Dec. 21 in The New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $30 general admission, $20 seniors and students. Call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org.