Most people going to the cell’s production of Bastard Jones have probably not encountered Henry Fielding’s hefty 18th-century novel. The odds may be greater that they’ve seen the Oscar-winning Tom Jones, a rare Best Picture comedy, but it rarely hits revival houses. That may be good, because Marc Acito and Amy Engelhardt’s new musical takes liberties—a lot of them—and fans of the film, scripted by John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), will find much has changed.
For one thing, the film steeped the audience in the world of Augustan England, right down to its fleet harpsichord score (an instrument so forgotten by the early 1960s that its sound was a revelation). The musical, created by Acito (book, lyrics and direction) and Engelhardt (music and lyrics), is a vibrant 21st-century creation, utilizing rock, ballads, and the occasional reverb. If “Bastard” in the title didn’t suggest that this is not your grandparents’ Tom Jones, Siena Zoë Allen’s gaudy costumes will—a mash-up of spangles, gold lamé and denim with white wigs (for the men), tricornes and a lonely, traditional buff jerkin.
The story has changed significantly as well, though it still focuses on the foundling Tom, raised by Squire Allworthy at his country estate, whose sexual exploits are disdained by the society around him, notably Allworthy’s weaselly nephew Blifil (Matthew McGloin), a Puritan hypocrite. Tom, falling in love with his childhood playmate Sophia (Elena Wang), nevertheless enjoys the company of Molly Seagrim (Alie B. Gorrie), the neighborhood slut, giving ammunition to his enemies to have him disowned by Allworthy. When that happens, Tom heads to London.
Amid the raft of characters, two major consolidations are regrettable. The exuberant Squire Western, Sophia’s father, has been subsumed into Mr. Thwackum, the pitiless, Bible-thumping tutor to Tom; he is now called Rev. Shepherd. And Miss Western, the Londonized sister to the belching, beer-guzzling squire, is gone too, along with a good deal of juicy comedy arising from their country vs. city insults.
Tom is played by Evan Ruggiero, a charismatic actor who may be familiar from TV appearances because he lost a leg to bone cancer (he’s been on Ellen). Yet Ruggiero displays indomitable athleticism, from using his substitute leg as a mock guitar to fighting with staffs, or dashing up stairs. He’s up to every physical challenge—including some mighty impressive dancing. However, illness left him unable to sing at the press preview I attended; he lip-synched the songs. Yet there are times when one wants him to be even more central, when Tom almost seems merely first among equals in the gallery of grotesques around him.
For instance, Lady Bellaston is no longer an elegant society seductress. In the hands of powerfully voiced Crystal Lucas-Perry, she is a man-devouring Gorgon, drinking in the sight of male derrieres. She dominates the second half. In a song called “Have Another Oyster, Dear,” she demands a mimed cunnilingus from Lord Fellamar (McGloin again), a henchman whom she proposes should rape Sophia in order to secure her hand in marriage—leaving the smitten Tom to her own clutches.
The minor part of Partridge is now enhanced from sad sack to winking clown. The character has been reconceived in the mold of a rascally servant, a stock character from Shakespeare through Molière. This Partridge (Rene Ruiz) is a purveyor of awful puns, delivered with gusto. “Finally, the fiesta résistance,” he announces. “I enter the narrative.” (Note: Puns are supposed to not only sound like something else, but to mean something as well.)
Until that point, Ruiz has served only as the Narrator, a major voiced presence in the film who speaks poetic ditties. In this version the Narrator is lower-class: “That cheerful ray of sunshine is the Right Reverend Shepherd. His narrative function is to be—uh, what’s it called—an asshole.” He’s occasionally called upon for more high-toned humor as well, but it comes in the form of spouting Latin—there’s even a song called “Nil Desperandum,” a duet with Tom that is one of the catchiest in Engelhardt’s score. However, apparently nobody ever saw Love’s Labor’s Lost: Latin banter is tedious, even in Shakespeare.
The cast works tirelessly to keep the story going, and the inn at Upton approximates the door-slamming farce in the film, albeit with a couple new characters. Overall, though, high comedy has lost to low on several fronts. When Lady Bellaston announces she’s going to give a ball, she adds, “I love balls”—a real pun, that, but a misreading of a character whose impeccable manners mask her sexual appetites. What Bastard Jones needs is the class-conscious, tongue-in-cheekiness of A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder. Too often what was playfully bawdy is now merely vulgar.
Bastard Jones runs through July 14 at the cell (338 W. 23rd St.). Evening performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 and 9 p.m. For tickets and information, call 800-838-3006 or visit thecelltheatre.org.