The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Book-to-stage adaptations are often wooden, but playwright Laura Eason has done a terrific job with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Her play
has energy and charm, and it really does communicate the fears, uncertainties and joys of childhood, as well as the atmosphere of a rural Missouri town situated beside a powerful river. From the novel, she selects lively, significant pieces of dialogue and exactly the right incidents to provide a satisfying dramatic arc, confining the exposition to a few well-chosen phrases so that you never feel you're being read to. She keeps things fluid, often using music and movement to make her point. The actors perform their way through the scene changes, for example, stomp-dancing round the stage and filling what are usually dead intervals with movement and meaning. It's significant that when Tom and Huck meet in the first scene, Huck is carrying a dead cat: This story is about both the sunshine in the children's lives and the darker currents they encounter and struggle to understand. When Tom and Huck witness a murder, they have a moral decision to make. The killer, Injun Joe, is a vicious thug with no redeeming qualities (he's also an unfortunate representation of the racial prejudices of Twain's time). If the boys tell on him, their lives will be in danger. If they don't, an innocent man — poor, confused Muff Potter — will hang. Yet as they agonize, everyday life continues. Tom falls in love with Becky, squabbles with her and — in a wonderfully gallant gesture — protects her from the wrath of their schoolmaster and takes her beating on himself. Unfortunately, the acting isn't up to the script: The accents are hokey and the performances so broad that the characters never feel real. Still, the show is bright and fresh enough to send a youngster who hasn't yet encountered Tom Sawyer flying home to read the book — and that is no small achievement. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 18, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed December 8.
Escanaba: 1922. The play opens as Alphonse Soady puts the finishing touches to his cabin in the woods. He's struggling to hold the door in place while hammering in the hinges. Will he hit his thumb? Of course he will. That door is important both literally and symbolically. It can keep out scary things, allow entry to the occasional miracle, and also vent the place of bad memories. The first entrant is James Negamanee, who hurls himself through the unfinished barrier in flight from a bear. Negamanee is obnoxious, posturing, fast-talking, irrepressible and full of unwanted advice, and Soady can't get rid of him. There are farts and songs, as well as an eating contest of sorts and a poem recited by Soady during an unexpectedly sentimental moment. The dead eventually intrude: Soady's father appears, wounded in the Civil War and helped along by Black Jack, a runaway slave. "Do not question those things that occur around me," pronounces a grandiose Negamanee. "I am a man of luck and inspiration." Director John Ashton has a knack for creating a kind of grubby, relaxed and welcoming reality, and he does that here with the help of Noah Lee Jordan as a gentle and effective Black Jack, as well as two terrific actors in the main roles: James Nantz as Soady and William Hahn as Negamanee. These aren't realistic characters, but in this self-enclosed world — drawn with such loving detail by actor/playwright Jeff Daniels — they feel real, and the actors don't make the mistake of turning them into caricatures. Presented by the Aurora Fox through December 18, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.org. Reviewed December 1.
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Kafka on Ice. Franz Kafka is known for his despairing view of life, and Buntport Theater manages to somehow honor this — and to respect his writing and vision — in Kafka on Ice, a show that ranges from wryly humorous to belly-laugh funny. They take on some artistic and philosophical issues as well: family discord, the relationship between art and life, the way a work of art acquires new meanings and forms over time — like this goofy production itself, which was created in 2004. In the play, as he did in life, Kafka asks his literary executor, Max Brod, to burn all his works after his death. Brod does no such thing. And in betraying his friend, he makes him immortal. The script combines events from the author's life with incidents in his famous novella Metamorphosis (you know, the one that begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect"). The production is set on a large sheet of artificial ice, and Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan, Evan Weissman, Erik Edborg and Brian Colonna play all the characters — from the women Kafka loved to his dictatorial father to a schoolteacher talking about symbolism to famed novelist-entomologist Vladimir Nabokov, who did his best to figure out exactly what kind of insect Gregor had become. There's beautiful stuff and thoughtful stuff and funny stuff all mixed together, and somehow it works as both a literary tribute and a giddy, joyful evening. Presented by Buntport Theater Company through December 17, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com. Reviewed (on the web) December 2.
The 1940's Radio Hour. The setting for The 1940's Radio Hour is the Algonquin Room at the Hotel Astor in New York, where WOV radio is about to go on the air. In the days before social media and effortless continual connection, the excitement of radio was intense. WOV may be a funky outfit whose members make their living waiting tables or driving cabs, but these folks know they're reaching thousands of people and representing comfort and home to America's soldiers overseas. On the other hand — except for the anxiety-ridden station manager, Feddington, who's continually bellowing commands that no one pays any attention to — they're also immersed in their own lives. Gum-chewing Ginger has an ongoing flirtation with sound-effects man Lou; perky soda-chugging Connie is involved with Yalie B.J. Gibson; Wally, who delivers the coffee, longs for a role with the show; Biff, who will leave for combat in the morning, expects to be back for the 1943 Christmas special, since the war will surely be over by then. Seated quietly in his corner, flipping through magazines and running bets sotto voce on the phone, is stage-door keeper Pops. You don't get all this information at once; the biographies emerge in bits and pieces as part of a rambling pastiche of comedy bits, genuine commercials of the era and wonderful old songs that simply can't help evoking nostalgia: "That Old Black Magic," "Ain't She Sweet?," "Blue Moon." The opening is low-key and naturalistic, with Pops in his corner, Lou setting up, other performers casually entering, but it's at odds with the style of the rest of the production, which is hammy, twitchy, glittery and, above all, extremely loud. Still, there's a lot of serious singing talent on the stage. Presented by the Arvada Center through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org. Reviewed December 8.
>Phantom. While playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston were still putting together Phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera
trundled onto the scene, and their backers vanished — along with any chance of a Broadway opening. This Phantom is much smaller-scale than Webber's, with less spectacle and more emphasis on the agonized humanity of the Phantom himself — though all the Gothic impulses animating Gaston LeRoux's original novel are still present. The plot: Beautiful Christine's beautiful soprano is discovered by the womanizing Count Philippe de Chandon, who secures her a place at the Paris Opera. But the organization has just been taken over by the Cholets, a nasty, scheming couple who have fired faithful long-term manager Carriere and intend to use the opera to showcase the ghastly voice of self-infatuated Carlotta Cholet. Poor Christine ends up in the costume shop rather than on stage, but beneath the imposing gray edifice lurks Erik, with his cohort of writhing lost souls. Music is his only solace, and having once heard Christine sing, he promptly offers her lessons; the first of these gives rise to one of the loveliest and most charming duets of the evening, "You Are Music." Musical-comedy ingenues are usually hard to like — pretty, simpering puppets — but Maggie Sczekan is not of this ilk. She has the kind of rich, expressive voice you want to listen to all night, and all the range and musicality this operatic (or at least operetta-ish) score demands; Markus Warren turns in an equally strong turn as the Phantom. Their performances are supported by clean, professional staging; a cunningly contrived set; elegant costumes; and a group of poised and experienced actors who know when to move into the limelight and when to step back and let the principals have the stage. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through February 18, 2012, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed November 24.