by Robert Bell
Based on what I knew ahead of time about the brand new musical version of "Treasure Island" that premiered last week at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, I was expecting an adaptation of a classic children's tale that focused on the ways greed can motivate us at our own peril.
Prior to opening, book writer Carla Vitale and director/choreographer and co-book writer Brett Smock discussed the production with the Times. "We've always put greed at the front, and we've leveraged the show against what people do in the face of having more, wanting more, getting more," Smock said. While those elements are certainly examined in the production, their treatment isn't in any way distracting from the action-filled story.
And it's not that I was anticipating that the creative team had transformed the tale into some hand-wringing, deeply philosophical treatise on the nature of greed or anything. It's just that "Treasure Island" ended up being more fun, and a lot funnier, than I was anticipating.
The show will definitely appeal to musical theater lovers of all ages, but for families with children it will prove to be an absolute blast, with riveting action, soaring music, deft choreography and a cast that, by turns, makes the audience laugh, grimace and cheer. That said, this is an intense show and might be a bit scary for very young kids. The story — somewhat condensed, out of necessity — moves along briskly. But it nonetheless feels complete and satisfying.
Most audiences are probably familiar with the story of young Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney and, of course, the pirate Long John Silver. Even so, I don't want to give away too much, so I'll stick with some of the things that stood out the most and made this musical so enjoyable:
* Stanley Meyer's set works wonderfully in its multiple duties as The Admiral Benbow Inn, the deck of The Hispaniola and various points on The Island. Also, Rafael Colon Castanera's costumes look simply awesome.
* By nature, a historically accurate 18th-century nautical setting won't allow for too many women, but Kristy Cates is fantastic as Mother Mary Hawkins. Not only can she sing beautifully, she gets in some hilarious lines.
* Speaking of hilarious lines, there are many in "Treasure Island," including a slight variation on the original text, in which Squire Trelawney, in hiring one of the ship mates, says to Doctor Livesy, "The abominable age we live in — to have lost your pension!" That line elicited a few knowing chuckles from a post-Great Recession crowd.
* Richard B. Watson is excellent as Long John Silver, a role that calls for an actor with the chops to turn on a dime, transforming from a shifty-eyed deceiver to a snarling animal and back again. Watson does so effortlessly. There's a particular laugh that emanates from deep within his second-act Silver that will make you shudder. He shines in this production. That he does so while traversing the stage in a prosthetic peg-leg makes his performance all the more impressive.
* If I had to point to one person from this richly talented cast as having stolen the show, it would be Patrick Richwood in the role of the castaway Ben Gunn (you might remember Richwood from his role as the doorman in "Pretty Woman"). Richwood's Gunn is a tortured, slinky, space-cadet survivor who resembles more than anything some shell-shocked rodent that somehow survived Armageddon. And despite possessing riches beyond imagination, all this mousy weirdo really wants some is some cheese. That simple desire seeps hilariously from his every move. I can't overstate how physically magnetic and funny Richwood is.
Really, though, there isn't a cast member that doesn't command your attention, nor a song that falls flat or goes on too long. And again, if you're looking to take your children to a show at The Rep, don't skip "Treasure Island," because while the upcoming productions of "Death of a Salesman" and "Avenue Q" that close out this season will probably be entertaining, they're not exactly made for kiddos.