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Theatre in Review: Bastard Jones (The Cell)

Matthew McGloin, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg

When it comes to Henry Fielding's seminal comic novel, theatre people are moths to the flame; unfortunately, they usually end up seared. The website Ovrtur.com, which keeps track of such things, lists seven different musical theatre adaptations of Tom Jones between 1907 and 2004, including one that, starting in 1968, ran a couple of years at The Desert Inn in Las Vegas(!). This was apparently the only version to enjoy any success, although a New York Times review, commenting on a 1981 dinner theatre revival, dismissed it as being "no fun at all;" in any case, it is long forgotten and all other efforts have ended in obscurity. How is it that a novel that remains in print nearly 250 years after its publication date, that provided the source for a blockbuster Oscar-magnet film, has defied theatrical adaptation?

Bastard Jones, the latest attempt at making Tom Jones sing and dance, may prove instructive. Despite Samuel Taylor Coleridge's comment that the book features "one of the three most perfect plots ever planned," it is an early example of the novel as doorstop, a massively involved and meandering tale running, in some editions, to more than a thousand pages. It is certainly possible to fillet a sleeker narrative out of this collection of diversions and digressions -- the film did it -- but one runs the risk of losing Fielding's eagle-eyed observations on the hypocrisies of English society, especially those festering in the corrupt London salon of the dissipated Lady Bellaston. Take away the author's voice and you are left with a crude series of sex capers, or, as one of the strippers in Gypsy puts it, "the same burlesque junk that's been said since the year one."

And that, basically, is what Marc Acito's book has to offer. He retains most of the major characters and the main narrative line -- complete with deathbed scenes, incriminating letters, bedroom mix-ups, and a general confusion about everyone's parentage -- but, dispiritingly, the dialogue is loaded with the kind of gags not heard since Minsky's Burlesque was shuttered forever. The hypocritical Reverend Shepherd says to his daughter, "The soul of the bastard Jones is a festering cesspool of lust. And I alone must use the holy word to suck it out." She replies, "Well, try not to suck too much." The well-intentioned Squire Allworthy, Tom's guardian, advises him, "You would do well to follow the example of my nephew. Master Blifil is a pillar of rectitude." An observer cracks, "Master Blifil has a pillar up his rectum." Shepherd, predicting that Tom will soon reveal his true colors, announces, "That reprobate will soon expose himself and then you'll see for yourself that's he's hung." I must add that not all of the script's howlers are about sex. When a guest at a country inn says yes to an offer of a cup of warm milk, the response comes: "I'll just go heat up the cow."

Suffice to say that a full evening of these smirkers is enough to induce vows of chastity in audience members looking for some semblance of adult wit. The songs -- music by Amy Engelhardt, drawing on a variety of rock/pop styles; lyrics by Acito and Engelhardt -- don't provide much relief, a few appealing melodies aside. A group of lusty soldiers sings, "We offer up our limbs and lives/Against the evil papists/We left behind our sons and wives/So why can't we be rapists?" Lady Bellaston, dismissing an inadequate lover, sings, "My shrunken pumpkin/Au revoir, farewell and ciao/I'm so sad you're leaving now/Next time act more like a plow."

Given the general poverty of the humor, it's striking how well the cast, under Acito's direction, maintains its sense of high spirits. There are three standout performances. As Tom, Evan Ruggiero cuts a suitably lusty figure, even in costumes that reveal his artificial leg. (He is a cancer survivor.) Acito finds a number of inventive ways to use the prosthesis: Tom's lover, Molly, helps him screw it on after a roll in the hay; Tom deploys it as a weapon in a brawl; and Partridge, his wisecracking companion, turns it into a pretend mic. Ruggiero is a trained dancer, so perhaps it's not surprising that, in one number, Tom even uses it to tap out a little time step. Ruggiero is also a highly attractive singer, his big voice melding perfectly with that of the gifted Elena Wang, who plays Sophia, Tom's virtuous love interest; they pair together beautifully on the ballad "I Am There," one of the few numbers that doesn't stoop to sniggering gags. As Lady Bellaston, Crystal Lucas-Perry uses her supercharged vocal style and natural diva presence to put over "Have Another Oyster, Dear," an otherwise undistinguished collection of double entendres linked to an admittedly kicky melody. I also liked Cheryl Stern as Squire Allworthy's sister, Bridget, who can't bring herself to believe the Reverend Shepherd's assertion that Sophia is pining away for her effete son (Matthew McGloin).

As is often the case at The Cell, the production design is spare in the extreme. No set designer is credited, which makes sense since the main scenic element is an upstage drop that also functions as a lightbox. Here and elsewhere, Gertjan Houben's lighting livens up the numbers with splashes of pastel colors. The costumes, by Siena Zoƫ Allen, consist largely of contemporary leisure wear dotted with period details: The short sleeves of Tom's denim jacket are edged with ruffles; the promiscuous, pregnant Molly -- one of Tom's most enthusiastic lovers -- wears a kind of makeshift pannier made of wood-slatted lampshades, one of which, when turned around, stands in for her swollen belly; and the soldiers who waylay Tom sport Union Jack tank tops. (Mr. Blifil, Bridget's gender-fluid son, wears a corset on the outside of his ensemble.) Except for some muddiness in the opening number, M. Florian Staab's sound design is admirably clear; his effects include thunder and, in in the opening, a few bars of "It's Not Unusual," sung by that other Tom Jones.

After two and a half hours of grinding away at these would-be bawdy gags, Bastard Jones wraps up in a slapdash climax that suggests everyone is in a hurry to get home; I don't blame them. Tom Jones is a mountain of a novel, and time and again theatrical teams have failed to scale it. Once more, the lusty bastard has eluded those who would have their way with him.-- David Barbour

(6 July 2017)

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