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Bastard Jones

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 22, 2017

Adam B. Shapiro, Evan Ruggiero, and Matthew McGloin
Photo by Carol Rosegg

There have been several attempts at creating musical adaptations of Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, the scandalous British novel first published in 1749, and the basis for Tom Jones, the 1963 Academy Award winning Best Picture. In addition to Edward German and Charles H. Taylor's opera, which played on Broadway in 1907, a version by playwright James Goldman (Follies) and composer Larry Grossman (Minnie's Boys) with the ungainly title The Celebrated Heroic Scandalous Misadventures of Tom Jones received a few high-profile readings in the early 2000s. The sprawling comical epic with its colorful cast of characters and bawdy situations seems perfectly suited for musical treatment, but success has been elusive. Happily, Bastard Jones, the shaggy and generally endearing new rock musical comedy playing at the Cell Theatre, captures the raucous spirit of the original novel while gently targeting twenty-first century issues.

The musical begins, not surprisingly, with our hero in flagrante delicto. Young Tom is known for his sexual prowess, and he is in bed with Molly Seagrim (Alie B. Gorie), a not-very-bright peasant girl. When the two have finished copulating (and singing the bouncy opening number, "Pursuit of Happiness"), they mime getting dressed, but in this production, it is with a difference.

Tom is played by Evan Ruggiero, who lost most of his right leg to bone cancer, and he uses, as his program bio describes, a peg-leg. In the scene, the actors nonchalantly twist the prosthesis into place, tighten it with a torque wrench, and they continue with the show. It is a brilliant moment that highlights the matter-of-factness of the actor's differently abled body and establishes the prosthetic limb as both an extension of the actor and as part of the show. (For instance, Ruggiero's peg-leg is used at different moments for miming a microphone, electric guitar, and a sword.) Ruggiero carries the musical with ease, and he is charming, sexy, and innocently goofy in equal measure.

The Cast of Bastard Jones
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The first act follows Tom as he confronts the obstacles associated with his bastard birthright. Although he is sexually voracious, Tom ardently loves Sophia Shepherd (Elena Wang), and she loves him. Unfortunately, their opposite social statuses make the union impossible, and the hypocritical Reverend Shepherd (Adam B. Shapiro) intends to marry his daughter to the treacherous Mr. Blifil (Matthew McGloin). There is a good deal of exposition to manage, but once Tom is banished from his home at the Allworthy estate due to some Blifil trickery, the musical is on firmer ground.

The musical highlight of the show occurs near the end of the first act when Tom arrives at an inn run by Landlady Nanny (Cheryl Stern) and the malaprop-spouting (and the show's narrator) Partridge (Rene Ruiz). Tom's misfortune affords the opportunity for Ruiz and Ruggiero to deliver an old-fashioned vaudevillian turn, a duet of the comically life-affirming song, "Nil Desperandum" ("Never Despair"). Performing a softshoe routine on top of a table that is reminiscent of Bob Hope and James Cagney dancing together in The Seven Little Foys, Ruggiero and Ruiz are thrilling. As topnotch dance numbers should elicit, there is a sense of awe at the agility of the dancers as well as the scary, but no-less thrilling, potential for physical danger (remember the peg-leg mentioned before?). My one regret is that the encore of the song is performed by Ruiz and Stern (playing the slatternly landlady) and not with Ruggiero. Stern is fine, but switching partners at the end of a number seems to violate the rules of Vaudeville 101, and Ruggiero deserves another round of hearty applause.

Act II does not have a similar musical crescendo, but it introduces another wonderful character, Lady Bellaston (Crystal Lucas-Perry), the lustful woman in whom Tom has met his match. Lady Bellaston's big number, "Have Another Oyster, Dear," gets big laughs as Lucas-Perry seduces and nearly devours a waif-like footman played by McGloin.

The show concludes with the requisite coincidences used to tie up the loose ends and a fitting ending to a musical comedy with the company singing, "Yeah! We're Alive! We're Alive!/ Happiness!"

The proceeds for this production of Bastard Jones go to the True Colors Fund, Cyndi Lauper's organization established to help homeless LGBT youth. The show's heart is in the right place, and one cannot help but want to root for it. The company of nine performers, most of whom are playing multiple roles, is to a person excellent. In addition to the actors previously mentioned, a special shout out must go to Elena Wang, who has a powerhouse voice and the comic chops to match. Her performance of "Tingle" is another highpoint, and the clever choreography by Joe Barros (whose work is inventive throughout) visualizes the sense of weightlessness resulting from sexual ecstasy.

Like his hard working cast, Marc Acito (who wrote the book for Allegiance) assumes triple duty as librettist, lyricist, and director. First, he has done an outstanding job synthesizing the expansive plot and episodes of the original source material. The scenes move quickly from one to the next, and the script minimizes any confusion through the use of a non-intrusive narrator. Acito's lyrics are rather less distinctive, and they are neither as deliciously raunchy nor scintillatingly poetic as one would wish at key moments in the plot. Similarly, Amy Engelhardt's music is often pleasant but not memorable. The show bills itself as a "rock musical comedy," but since "easy listening" as a category would not lend itself well to a hip new musical, suffice it to say that the score hews closer to a more traditional musical comedy sound than classic rock.

Acito's resourceful direction is the production's strong suit. Using minimal set pieces, such as a table (which before the show and during intermission functions as the bar) with a removable leaf, pieces of rope of varying lengths, and a variety of poles and bed sheets, the actors convey the shifting locations effectively and imaginatively. The impression is like that of Nicholas Nickleby in miniature. Siena Zoƫ Miller's costumes are similarly creative, and the designs accentuate modern-dress outfits with found objects to evoke eighteenth-century style.

Fielding's novel takes aim at oppression and exclusion caused by class hierarchies and the blatant hypocrisies of those wielding moral power. As social commentary, Bastard Jones reflects how little has changed in the last several centuries. And as performed by the enormously talented and notably diverse cast, the production demonstrates that, at least in musical theatre, inclusiveness is possible.

Bastard Jones
Through July 15
The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
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