Young Eben Kuhns, a Mount Vernon teenager who has been seen on professional as well as community theater stages throughout the region over the past few years, provides what sparks there are in the Dominion Stage production of the musical "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," which plays through this weekend at Theater One of the Gunston Arts Center on South Lang Street.
Kuhns handles the role of Mark Twain's classic character, the youngster with enough charm to cajole his friends into whitewashing a fence for him by making it seem like fun. That famous youthful con job has been set to music in a song "Smart Like That," which is a highlight of the first act in part because Kuhns shows the charm that Tom Sawyer might well have used to get out of the chore himself. When he wins a day off from school for his entire class by spelling every state in the union in just one minute ("e-v-e-r-y-s-t-a-t-e-i-n-t-h-e-u-n-i-o-n"), he wins over the audience as well.
He has been handling ever larger parts recently. Last year, he starred in the Imagination Stage production of a science-fiction show for kids called "Callisto 5" in Bethesda. The year before he was a member of a notable ensemble of younger performers in the affecting drama "Runaways" on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this production, Kuhns is paired with Rachel Weber as Becky Thatcher, the girl who catches young Tom's eye. Their duet "To Hear You Say My Name" is another highlight of the first act.
The play itself is by our own famous local playwright, Ken Ludwig, who has had major successes with comedies ("Lend Me A Tenor," "Moon Over Buffalo") and his only other musical, "Crazy For You" which used songs by George and Ira Gershwin. He teamed up with composer, lyricist Don Schlitz to write this one. This effort, however, was not a success when it opened on Broadway. It closed in three weeks.
PART OF THE problem was that the show was essentially a small, children's musical expanded to try to fill a big Broadway house. It featured gorgeous sets by Heidi Ettinger and a big orchestra under Broadway legend Paul Gemignani. Still, it could not eke out a run of even a month, in part because the story is awfully slow in the telling.
Dominion Stage — a community theater company that frequently does better with small, intimate plays than big musicals — doesn't have the benefit of such visual or sonic strengths. The four-member band under co-musical director Peter Darling is on the audience floor in front and to the side of the stage where their volume all too often covers the vocals. The set here is merely serviceable and the structures for second act scenes in Injun Joe's Cave are laboriously put in place in a second intermission which slows down the show even further.
Other members of the cast provide some very nice moments, especially Kat Brais as Tom's Aunt Polly. She has a lovely song in the second act, "This Time Tomorrow," that touches just the right chord for the scene. Nathan Ward is often a fine Huckleberry Finn, although the night this reviewer attended he had difficulty keeping his microphone in place and frequently adjusted it at awkward moments.
Those microphones were more than just a visual problem. Only a few of the cast had microphones, which threw off the balance between them and the others who did not have microphones. Some, like Ken Clayton as Injun Joe had little difficulty being heard throughout the hall although his performance was not as well delivered as was his WATCH award-winning performance in the Little Theatre of Alexandria's "Biloxi Blues" last season. Others, such as Zach Talmadge, who played Tom's brother Sid, were practically inaudible at times.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.