Friday, June 23, 2017

Review: Sex, Tom Jones, and Rock 'n' Roll

By Michael Block

Ah yes, "Tom Jones", the infamous novel written by Henry Fielding. Certainly, this is the perfect source material for a vintage-inspired, modern rock musical-slash-sex romp. Right? Well, that’s a debate for another day. The Cell has given a home to Bastard Jones, a brand-new musical inspired by Fielding’s comedy, in another attempt to master the classic. With book by Marc Acito, music by Amy Engelhardt, and lyrics by Acito and Engelhardt, Bastard Jones is a jumble of joy on a long journey to completion.
Tom Jones is a bastard, as the title says. In lighter terms, he’s called a foundling, as the identity of his parentage is in question. Tom is pure of heart and full of trouble. Oh, and he loves the ladies. Having devoted a life to Allworthy, his guardian and the man who raised him, Tom tries to do good despite the plethora of temptation standing in his way, including a soon-to-be knocked up peasant girl named Molly, Reverend Shepherd’s daughter Sophia, and the ravishing Lady Bellaston. Through farcical comedy and a rocking score, Tom Jones is on a mission to find himself and his true identity. But will lineage matter when you grow up to be who you are? Marc Acito’s is nothing short of ambitious. He infuses a blend of modern tongue spattered within the heightened text. And there’s no shortage of raunchy humor and sex jokes. Acito has proven that anything can be turned into a sex joke. With an exuberant amount of word play and double entendre, Bastard Jones, still slimmer than its source material, goes on and on. Acito has room to snip away at the fluff to expose the true meat of the material. The score, overall, is quite strong. Acito and Engelhardt provide a raucous good-time through music. It’s hard for a new musical to leave the audience with ear-worm worthy songs, but Bastard Jones does that with ease. Whether it’s the big opener of “Pursuit of Happiness,” the buddy ditty “Nil Desperandum,” the sultry tuner “Have Another Oyster, Dear,” or the power ballad to end all power ballads “I Must Away,” Acito and Engelhardt has a score to be remembered.
photo by Carol Rosegg
Once Acito can match the book to the music, Bastard Jones is ready for the next level. To do so, it might be best to bring in a new eye in the director’s chair. Without a doubt, Acito utilized some innovative staging within the confines of the uniquely difficult space of The Cell. Between the alcove and the second level, Acito played with the entirety of the improvised theater. By adding a trio of doors to hammer home the farcical fun and overload of fabric, Acito created more architecture for the characters to explore. With all this in mind, why does Acito need to tag out as director? The focus on the development of the book was clearly lacking. As the book writer, Acito can easily write in his desires for the staging for a future director to interpret and incorporate. Costume designer Siena Zoe Allen played with modern attire with hints of Georgian era fashion. Like Acito’s usage of found items, Allen mirrored Acito and played with nonsensical items to create costumes, like a basket as a pregnancy belly. With a fairly neutral canvas to light, Gertjan Houben threw hints of color to break up the world through the diversity of color.
The company of Bastard Jones was a game to play and tackle nearly all the primary roles from the source material. With mostly neutral accents, some of the characters took on a tinge of an affectation. From top to bottom, this was a stellar ensemble. To play Tom Jones, you need the right actor and Evan Ruggiero is just that. Ruggiero exudes charm and charisma. He may be referred to as a Hellborn he-whore, but Ruggiero’s Tom Jones is a hunk of a hero. Since it is incorporated into the staging, Ruggiero lost part of his leg to bone cancer and performs with a peg leg. But don’t for a second think this will stop him. There is nothing that this young man can’t do. He taps better than most! The role of Tom Jones was seemingly written for a rock tenor. The score soars high. There were moments during the performance that I attended that you could noticeably see Ruggiero’s lips didn’t quite match the sound of the voice. Due to some sickness on the actor’s part, some of the supporting cast stepped in to hit those unfortunate high notes for Ruggiero as to not lose the integrity of Engelhardt’s score. Especially during the group numbers, it made little sense dramaturgically to have someone else on stage sing some moments, but when you’re in a pickle, you have to make it work, and the team did. Elena Wong as Sophia was a perky ing√©nue that dominated the comedy. She was plucky and bright with a standout vocal performance. Crystal Lucas-Perry has regality in her tone. As one of the few who gender-bended, Lucas-Perry did whatever was needed until her shining moment as Lady Bellaston. It was easy to steal the show with this over-the-top material and Cheryl Stern and Rene Ruiz did so at every opportunity.
The future is bright for Bastard Jones. It’s going to take a little polish and finesse to get there, but don’t expect to see the last of it. There is certainly something special about this winning production, and it may be its unabashed approach. If Evan Ruggiero is attached to the show, expect a prosperous future.