That scamp Tom Sawyer is kicking up his heels at the Kennedy Center Lab in a retooled version of Ken Ludwig's Broadway musical. Fast-moving and bright, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is based on Mark Twain's coming-of-age story and emphasizes the adventures of its title character and his friends, Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn, as they cope with life in a 19th-century river town. With its banjo-driven score by country music writer Don Schlitz and its aw-shucks-ma'am approach to storytelling, this "Tom Sawyer" overflows with innocence and affection for a time long past -- or, perhaps, a time that never really was.
"Ain't Life Good!" is the opening number on the Mississippi River docks, and it's the finale as well. In between, Ludwig explains just why that's so -- and he does an impressive job of condensing a full-length musical into 60 minutes while managing to hit major plot points and working in Schlitz's pop country songs. And while the pace is hectic at times, Nick Olcott's direction never lets us get lost in the rapidly shifting scenes and changing characters. Olcott is aided in this effort by James Kronzer's clever set of mix-and-match wooden crates, which Olcott recombines to create a dozen different locales. Martha Mountain's lighting assists in the quick transitions from schoolroom to creepy graveyard to courtroom and cool, dark cave.
A strong cast of experienced musical theater performers deliver the goods with conviction. It's a kick watching the supporting actors morph in and out of multiple roles with the change of a hat or a coat. Morgan Duncan's transformation from an upright schoolmaster to the dissolute grave robber Muff Potter is so complete that you forget it is only one actor playing the two parts.
R. Scott Thompson is by turns earnest and wistful as Tom, playing off Amy McWilliams's prim Aunt Polly. And Sean MacLaughlin is a game, if rather preppy, Huck Finn, rendered here as strangely well groomed for a boy who, according to Twain, "slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet." The original Huck was also an outcast who smoked, swore and never went to school or church. All that remains of him here is his illiteracy and constant truancy. The Widow Douglas vows to "civilize" him, but MacLaughlin's Huck seems pretty tame to start with.
But this "Tom Sawyer" is such a well-packaged work, and such good fun besides, that perhaps only the people who get paid to think about things like this will point out that it bypasses the more difficult issues of class and racial conflict that ripple through Twain's novel. Ludwig tells us the play is set "in the golden age of the American Dream," but the script makes no reference to the fact that this age is the antebellum South and that some of the characters in the original were slaveholders, while others were slaves. (And shame on the Kennedy Center for its failure to credit Twain in the program!)
One can argue, of course, that "Tom Sawyer" is fiction, not history, and that one can't be expected to address such complex and emotionally charged matters in a play intended for children. But the brilliance of the original novel was that it has always worked at two levels -- as literature for both adults and children, who read it with different eyes and drew from it different meanings. Ludwig focuses entirely from the child's perspective, and if he sidesteps sore subjects, he's never condescending. It may be a well-scrubbed "Tom Sawyer" he gives us, but it's a crafty one as well.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by Ken Ludwig and based on the novel by Mark Twain. Music and lyrics by Don Schlitz. Directed by Nick Olcott. Musical direction, Deborah Wicks La Puma; choreography, Michael Bobbitt; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; sound, Tony Angelini. With Amy Sheff, Michael Tilford and Britt Prentice. At the Kennedy Center Lab through Dec. 29. Call 202-467-4600.