There are companies which do epics, and then there is Lumina Studio. Having put together a sixty-character amalgamation of Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3, in which no actor was above the age of 19, Lumina now tops itself by producing a seventy-character musical version of Tom Jones, with songs imported from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.
You remember “Tom Jones”, the 263-year-old Henry Fielding novel about the randy adventures of a young foundling – all 360,000 words, in 140 chapters spread across eighteen books. Or perhaps you remember only the Tony Richardson movie, which made a household name out of Albert Finney, or maybe only that scene where he and Joan Redmond have one of the most memorable meals in cinematic history. Whatever – you remember.
“Let copulation thrive!” King Lear (!) once exhorted, and he noted “The wren goes to’t, and the small gilded fly/Does lecher in my sight.” But the small gilded fly was a piker compared to Tom Jones, a vigorous amatory gourmand who bestows his attentions on enthusiastic ladies across a broad range of age and economic class for most of Fielding’s 580 or so pages.
Turning all this into a play presents some special challenges for a company like Lumina, which, although it does not attempt an all-kid cast here, does, after all, seek to make the classics accessible to modern families. Were this to be attempted by Landless or Woolly we might have seen some of the frank sexuality of the movie (or of the Georgian era in which Fielding wrote the novel) but that route probably wouldn’t have worked for Lumina and its audiences. And there is the sheer length of the book; “Tom Jones”, like “War and Peace” and “Memories of Things Past” is less a read than a campaign, and when one finishes it one instinctively looks for a commemorative plate, or at least a small badge for the lapel. And finally, the adapter must deal with passages like this:
“A servant now acquainted them that Mr. Western was below-stairs; for his eagerness to see Jones could not wait till the afternoon. Upon which Jones, whose eyes were full of tears, begged his uncle to entertain Western a few minutes, till he a little recovered himself; to which the good man consented, and, having ordered Mr. Western to be shewn into a parlour, went down to him.”
In other words, Fielding doesn’t tell the story so much as he talks about the story, and it is up to the reader – or the adapter – to fill in the actual eventual events.
I am delighted to report that adapter John O’Connor (who also plays Partridge, Tom’s putative father, and co-directs along with Kelly Newman O’Connor and David Minton) surmounts all of these problems with seeming ease, and mounts an adaptation which is vigorous, amusing, and entirely original. Fielding was an intrusive narrator, so O’Connor makes him a character—a drolly pompous fellow who sets Tom and his compatriots in motion, and who intervenes to slice through the narrative where Fielding’s novel turns dry, expositive or when it bloats into lecture. Minton’s Fielding is a funny fellow, telling a funny story, and Minton does a beautiful job with him.
This takes care of the second problem as well. It is impossible to take the sex out of Tom Jones, and O’Connor, to his credit, doesn’t try to, but under his deft handling the story takes on an aspect somewhere between “Benny Hill” and “Monty Python.” The characters smooch and canoodle with such lavish and wide-eyed gestures that I half-expected to hear a cartoonish Pop! at the end of each kiss, and when Tom discovers that the mature cutie (Wendy Lanxner, also the music director) with whom he has just done the horizontal mambo is apparently his mother, Fielding comes in to deliver an explanatory lecture and then throws up his hands in despair over his own narrative.
The third challenge is to write Tom Jones – to turn it from a tale recollected into something in the here-and-now. O’Connor does this too, with vigorous, original prose, absolutely faithful to the spirit of the original but completely comfortable in the modern world.
The story, in brief (Brief! Tom Jones! Hah!): Squire Allworthy (Ritchie Porter), an entirely conventional man with a good heart, returns to his country estate to discover an unaccountable infant sleeping in his bed. This is Tom, and the good Squire hands him off to his sister Bridget (Lanxner) for handling while he identifies the lad’s parents. He eventually settles on the servant Jenny Jones (Meg Lebow) and the schoolteacher Partridge (Robert Lach; O’Connor plays him as an older man) and, consistent with the practices of the time, exiles them forthwith.
St. Augustine begins his Confessions with the story of a time he stole apples, and so the narrative next reopens with a young Tom (Remzi Hazboun) stealing a brace of partridges from his neighbor, the choleric Squire Western (Brian Monsell). St. Augustine tells his story to acquaint us with his own depravity, but Fielding tells this story by way of showing Tom’s heroic nature. Tom, apprehended, takes the blame all on himself, shielding his co-conspirator, the wary gamekeeper George (Andy Penn. Do you have this problem with your gamekeeper, by the way?) even when assaulted by the tedious nostrums of Mr. Square, his philosophical tutor (Mark Reiner) and a beating by Mr. Thwackum, his religious tutor (Michael Novello). Fielding contrasts Tom’s behavior with that of Bridget’s young son, the loathsome Blifil (the fabulous Cole Sebastian), who is all surface piety but who on the inside is wormy with greed, envy and rage.
The neighbors all think that Tom is destined for the hangman; he has a good heart, but bad impulse control. As a teenager (now played by Nick Coffey) he impregnates George’s daughter Molly (Claire Koenig) – or maybe not, as Molly enjoys the favors of Mr. Square as well, and also the guy down the street. He has other adventures in Loveland, but his heart truly belongs to the exotically beautiful Sophia, Squire Western’s daughter (Dre Weeks; Aziza Afzal plays her as a teenager and Isabel Echavarria as a child). Sophia reciprocates, but it is of no use. The Squire likes Tom and admires his spirit, but wouldn’t think of marrying his daughter off to a foundling and a bastard, and so arranges her to be married – much against her will, to Blifil (now played as a sneering adult by Keith Anderson).
Eventually Tom (as an adult, Ian Blackwell Rogers) is accused of doing a Bad Thing, and his mournful guardian exiles him; Tom thereafter goes on a journey, which he (and we) hope will end up with him being reunited with his True Love. Along the way he has some True Dalliances, including with a grown-up Jenny Jones and with Lady Bellaston (Kelly Newman O’Connor), who so much enjoys her time with Tom in the hay that she plots to marry Sophia off to the spectacularly boring and creepy Lord Fellamar (Minton), who she hopes Sophia will accept in lieu of the even more disagreeable Blifil.
Lumina brings all of this off with lip-smacking vigor. While some of the actors struggled with lines on the day I watched the production, they had their characters down cold. I loved how Rogers was able to show Tom’s lusty appetite and immature judgment without ever losing sight – or allowing us to lose sight – of his good heart. On the other hand, Anderson as Blifil is a superb foil, whose engine is fired up by an unaccountable anger, but whose every expression of it is masked in seeming grace and good manners. Sophia is a character of unalloyed goodness and so it would be easy to make her dull, but Weeks keeps her interesting; we see her indecision as different reports of Tom’s actions and intentions filter in to her, and the pain that it causes her. Kelly Newman O’Connor is nice as a nasty, nasty lady and John O’Connor is solid as a man who, once thought to be Tom’s father, agreeably becomes his manservant.
This is a fine production, done with precision and loving attention to detail. Kelly Newman O’Connor’s and Joanie Lawson’s gorgeous period costumes are an emblem of the care which Lumina has given this production. I am particularly impressed with how thoughtfully Lumina selected actors who resemble each other to play the various stages of the principal characters’ lives. Moreover, the production clocks in at 2.45 without leaving anything important out of Fielding’s novel.
I wish I could say that the decision to adapt the music for Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is similarly successful, but it is not. A musical generally supplements a thin plot with a narratively powerful score, but here the plot is as thick as the Great Wall of China, and whatever narrative exists in Gay’s song supplements a different plot entirely. Thus the songs (which are not very interesting musically) serve to interrupt the story, and we are obliged to sit through them while we wait for the plot to continue. In addition, the cast – with the notable exception of Alex Monsell – are not of the greatest as singers. (Monsell also does an amusing imitation of the Welch singer Sir Thomas John Woodward, who performed under the stage name Tom Jones, at the top of the show).
But if the music is to be endured, the play – which is the vast bulk of the afternoon’s entertainment – is more than endearing, and if you go I will be very surprised if you aren’t smiling when you leave.
Adapted by John O’Connor from the novel by Henry Fielding
Directed by John O’Connor, Kelly Newman O’Connor, and David Minton
Produced by Lumina Studio Theatre at Round House Silver Spring
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 Hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission