By Emily Clemenson
Human Race Theatre Company’s world premiere of This is Tom Jones! opened at The Loft Theatre this week. Directed by Emily N. Wells, this show is a delightful way to experience a story about love and mistaken identity.
The audience was into it, from the first notes of the opening number. Many audience members came to opening night in groovy 1960s-inspired costumes. There was plenty of laughter at the sexual innuendos peppered throughout the script and blocking.
Based on the Novel Tom Jones
The storyline follows the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding with accuracy. Tom Jones (Kyle Mangold) grows up as an adopted charge of Squire Allworthy (Edwin Large). Growing up alongside Tom is his cousin, the delightfully evil Blifil (Eb Madson), determined to ruin Tom’s life. Adolescent Tom Jones is known around town for his promiscuity, but his eyes are set on his neighbor Sophie (Melinda Porto). After confessing their love to each other, Sophie and Tom leave town on the same night – Tom, because he is banished from the town, and Sophie, because her father has arranged for her to marry Blifil.
In the second act, Tom and Sophie end up at the same inn in the English countryside, and again in high society of London. Mistakes are made, identities are mistaken, lots of costumes are changed, and the show ends with a wedding – but of whom?
The cast of This is Tom Jones! is a mix of local, regional, and national actors. Kyle Mangold is the only actor to have a singular role throughout the show. Melinda Porto shines as Sophie, a lovely soprano that blends beautifully during all of her duets with Tom, and her few appearances as Sophie’s cousin Harriet. Jamie Cordes portrays Sophie’s father, Western, whose lines are riddled with obscure puns about hunting.
The rest of the ensemble is filled with character actors: Patrick Earl Phillips serves as the narrator throughout the show, but dons four additional named roles that pop in and out. Eb Madson’s delightfully evil as Blifil, but also briefly appears as Blifil’s father with the same name, and the big-bosomed Susan, a scantily clad maid. Edwin Large spends most of his time as Squire Allworthy, but embodies a few additional roles, most noteworthy as the jealous Fitzpatrick who has a hilarious fight stance. Kelly Mengelkoch single-handedly plays all of the housemaids as well as a few other minor female roles; seven named parts in total.
With a quick switch of bonnets, aprons, accents and posture, Mengelkoch jumped from role to role, often multiple times in each scene. Aleah Vassell appeared throughout the first act with minor roles, but they shined in the second act as Mrs. Waters. And the standout character actor is Sara Mackie: all seven of her named roles are unique from one another in dialect, physicality and costume, and Mackie was a superb casting choice to pull it all together. On the whole, It is refreshing to see multiple humorous character roles written for women.
The Creative Team
Music, book and lyrics for This is Tom Jones! is by Mark Brown, and music is by Paul Mirkovich. The musical is set in the 1750s with musical styles from the British Invasion of the 1960s. The mashup of these two distinct time periods is the most obvious in the music and book, but it is echoed by Tamara L. Honesty’s scenic design, comprising a bold retro wallpaper on the set walls, layered with classical art. While the set doesn’t change through the entirety of the show, there were fun little surprises peppered throughout, like paintings that swing open to allow an actor to quickly pop into and out of a scene.
The other way this mashup of time periods is through Janet G. Powell’s costume design, where most of the time the characters wear 18th-century garb, but peppered throughout are nods to the 1960s, like Tom’s striped corduroy pants or Molly’s long curls and flower crown.
The choreography, by Debbie Blunden-Diggs, shines in the ensemble song “Fox Hunting”, where each of the actors rides around the stage on a hobby horse, and again in “London Town” when Tom is transformed into a young man dressed for London’s high society while members of the ensemble twirl with bolts of fabric.
From the opening line, the fourth wall is broken to let the audience feel part of the secret of the show. They don’t try to hide the actors’ multiple roles, and it is fun to notice actors transition with a simple switch of hats, an added (or removed) layer of clothing, or swapping out one wig for another. There is even a joke written into the script, when Tom Jones tells the housemaid that she looks familiar, and she quips back that people think all hired help looks the same. This multi-character development pays off in the second act when Brown starts bringing back characters you didn’t expect in ways you wouldn’t have expected; the audience is kept on their toes wondering if an actor’s reappearance is someone we have already met or someone new.
As with the world premiere of anything, there are still a few loose ends that need to be tied down. The storyline of Harriet Fitzpatrick is never resolved, many of Western’s lines are lost (whether from dialect, obscure metaphorical references, or both), and the balance of amplified microphones with the live on-stage band still needs to be refined. But don’t let any of that deter you – the cast of superb actors gets the story across. This is Tom Jones! is a hilarious, groovy, entertaining show and the Human Race Theatre knocks it out of the park.
Get Tickets to This is Tom Jones!
This is Tom Jones! runs through September 24th at the Loft Theatre in downtown Dayton. Purchase tickets on their website.