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Center Stage: Only one performance to enjoy classic tale

By Staff | May 20, 2015

At the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, director/choreographer Amy Marie McCleary and an awesome cast have achieved the near impossible with their version of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” the Palm’s children’s theatre edition. They have created a musical that appeals to both children and adults on all levels; and that, my friends, is truly amazing.

The playwright Ken Ludwig (of “Crazy for You,” “Lend Me A Tenor,” and “Moon Over Buffalo” fame) adapted Mark Twain’s great American novel in a theatrically convincing, witty, intelligent manner, without sacrificing believability, dramatic structure or homespun honesty for histrionic preachiness; all the while making it fun for kids and adults of all ages.

Songwriter Don Schlitz has provided music and lyrics that pay tribute to American country westerns, so much so that it seems these are songs you learned in your childhood and now hearing again after being forgotten for too many years.

This show owes a great deal of its audience appeal to the very talented choreographer/director Amy Marie McCleary. This wonderful choreographer has created dances and staging that almost seem to be based on children’s games and as such are fun, full of energetic movement and instantly understandable. As a director, McCleary has cast performers that are not only multi-talented but also performers that are capable of fleshing the fundamental truths behind Twain’s beautifully drawn characters.

Add that to a first-rate ensemble and principal cast, blended with lots of ingenious staging, great sets and costumes, and you have produced the ideal family musical.

The play is true to the original setting that takes place in St. Petersburg, Missouri, a bustling small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. In this tale Tom Sawyer matches wits not only with his Aunt Polly (the stern but loveable Diane Huber), but with the schoolmaster (Jayar Garcia). He also falls in love with the pretty and plucky Becky Thatcher (winsome as well as gifted Avery Bryce).

Tom not only matches wits with grownups, he tricks his friends into painting a fence for him. The greatest of Tom’s antics are brought to life from the book as Tom and his best friend Huckleberry Finn go on adventures, meeting that terrifying villain named Injun Joe (Australian born Sean Cleary who claims not to be as mean in real life, and his favorite animal is the kangaroo). You’ll also meet Sid, Tom’s bratty half-brother (played by another talented cast member Katharine Gentsch) who loves playing this “stinky boy.”

What can you expect from a person who admits that “she is the only person she knows whose favorite color is gray?” Well, Gentsch creates a bratty kid you just love to hate. Well done!

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” of course, belongs to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the two fine young triple-threat singer, dancer, actors playing them are top of the line. Will Leonard as Tom is a tousle-haired dynamo who captures your attention from his first entrance to the final curtain call. Leonard’s acting, singing and dancing in this leading role are quite simply “Great”!

Matt Casey rocks as Huck Finn, more than holds his own in the singing, dancing and acting department, creating a three-dimensional character that is totally true to how Twain created him. Plucky Avery Brice plays Becky in a way that is both endearing and fun; Brice has a lovely voice shown off to great advantage in the two duets she has with Tom, “To Hear You Say My Name” and “Light.”

Australian born Sean Cleary did a great job as the villainous Injun Joe. He murders the doctor (Dustin Cunningham), tries to kill Tom, Huck and Becky as well as trying to frame his drunken cohort in body snatching, Muff Potter (Ben Cramer). Cramer is a hoot as the drunken Muff who is beaten up and framed by the evil bad guy Injun Joe. With Diane Huber as Aunt Polly and Courtney Cunningham as the widow who takes in Huck, feeding and housing him as she teaches him to read, these two fine actresses give these roles depth and warmth, making them both touchingly realized. Also of particular note in an excellent supporting cast are Dustin Cunningham in a triad of roles Doc/Judge/Pap, Glen Britton playing Joe/Sheriff, and Jayar Garcia in the dual roles of Dobbins/Reverend.

Considering that this production had a mere 36 hours of rehearsal is a real tribute to the fine ensemble cast and the amazing creative work done by director/choreographer Amy Marie McCleary, set designs P&P Designs. Costume designs/Jim Conti, sound and lighting designs/Chris McCleary, musical director/Loren Strickland, all have pulled this production together and created a version of “The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer” that is nothing short of wonderful.

The menu offered is child friendly and tasty as well as healthy: Tacos, pizza, fish fingers, green salad bar, and cake for dessert. At $18 for luncheon and a first rate musical production, you can’t beat it.

The matinee I attended was filled with grownups and kids having a wonderful time. There was even an opportunity to ask questions of the actors, and a chance to meet and greet, to take pictures and get autographs from favorite cast members in the lobby after the show.

My suggestion would be to not miss taking not only your kids but yourself to experience the wonderful world of live theater, a chance to share and remember what darn good children’s theater is all about.

Since the final performance is May 22, don’t wait to call the box office at (239) 278-4422 for reservations.

Remember when you call to remind ’em Marsha sent you…and ENJOY!