Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In its long history, The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, has developed many new musicals, including last season's impressive Indigo. They kick off their 2023-2024 season with yet another in their world premiere production of This Is Tom Jones!. With a versatile cast and a clever approach to an almost 300-year-old story, this is a promising new work with much to offer audiences.
This Is Tom Jones! is based on the 1749 novel "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling," by English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding. The story follows the antics of a good-natured but woman-crazy young man in 1750s England who falls in love with the aristocratic Sophie. A series of wild circumstances scatter both of them separately from their individual homes, but fate determines that they find each other again. Will that be enough to overcome additional obstacles and Tom's penchant for constant female company?
A primary characteristic of this musical adaptation is that, while the piece still takes place in the 1700s, the score, design, and some directorial elements are presented through the lens of the 1960s. The original score features music by Mark Brown and Paul Mirkovich and lyrics by Brown. The pastiche songs wonderfully copy the style of 1960s British Invasion groups such as Herman's Hermits and The Yardbirds. The mop-top music is matched with simple, straightforward lyrics which, while not adding much in the way of significant depth, do convey the tone and themes of the show. Song highlights include "The One," "About You," and "Someone Knocking at My Door".
The book, also by Mark Brown, presents Fielding's story quite faithfully, but with some additional, endearing kookiness. The sexual themes and farcical situations of the plot are befitting the 1960s treatment, with the feel of both Austin Powers and "Benny Hill" (though without quite the frenetic pace of Hill's show). The bawdy and broad humor, including a few great one-liners (one about the singer Tom Jones) is quite effective, but the original story and this adaptation don't substantially help the audience develop a lot of emotional investment in the characters (though this style doesn't really require it).
Director Emily N. Wells stated during her pre-curtain speech that the writers had been involved during rehearsals and that two songs had been cut and some additional material written. The show requires some further tweaking and tightening to reach its full potential, but it is well on its way. Wells provides an apt, amiable tone for the piece, and many unexpected theatrical moments. A familiar trick from the 1960s TV show "Laugh-In" is effectively incorporated, and the active blocking keeps the show moving along. Act 1 feels a bit too long, and a running gag in the second act grows a bit tiresome, but overall, this is a very solid presentation. Choreographer Debbie Blunden-Diggs provides some very cute '60s moves for many of the numbers, and the dancing for "Fox Hunting" is smile inducing. Steve Goers leads a wonderful-sounding onstage five-piece band.
The cast is a mix of local and New York talent. Kyle Mangold (Tom Jones) and Melinda Porto (Sophie) come across as extremely likeable, and are capable lead performers. They also display lovely vocals in many of the show's best songs. The rest of the cast play multiple roles, each garnering copious laughs throughout and showing off skillful versatility: Patrick Earl Phillips, Sara Mackie, Kelly Mengelkoch, Eb Madson, Aleah Vassell, Jamie Cordes, and Edwin Large.
Tamara L. Honesty's amusing unit set features 1960s retro wallpaper and furniture with a day-glo color palette, but with 18th century paintings on the walls. The costumes by Janet G. Powell mostly resemble 1750s style outfits, but with a few nods to the 1960s (especially the men's pants), and there are a few costumes that double as hilarious sight gags. The lighting by John Rensel is professionally rendered, but there were issues on press night with the sound mix, especially during group numbers, as supplied by emily c. porter.
The presentation of a very old story with a much more modern, but still retro, style is a smart one that is expertly executed by The Human Race Theatre Company. This is Tom Jones! features a unique score, a fun story, intriguing design, and a very talented cast.
This Is Tom Jones! runs through September 24, 2023, at The Loft Theatre, 126 Main Street, Dayton OH. For tickets and information, please call 937-228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.