LOUISVILLE, Ky. – “There’s no doubt about it, Tom Jones is an innocent’s voyage to safe harbor through the storms of sexuality. It’s rowdy, bawdy, charming and delightful,” Jon Jory writes in the published script for his stage adaptation of Henry Fielding’s great 1749 novel. That second sentence also describes the wickedly funny show now romping through Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Bingham Theatre.
The Theatre Hall of Famer that led ATL from 1969 to 2000 is back during the company’s 50th anniversary season with a fresh look at Fielding’s melodious mix of farce and satire that’s still one of the most-lauded English-language books of all time. Accompanied by his wife Marcia Dixcy Jory – who provides extraordinary costumes fashioned from the heart of Georgian England – and a cast that handles the social mores and silliness with equal aplomb, Jory provides the umpteenth entertaining example of his theatrical genius.
“Tom Jones was born for the pleasure of women and the consternation of men,” a narrator tells us as the action begins in the Bingham’s octagonal arena. Indeed, and the next two hours and 15 minutes show this rake’s progress through country and city while seeking the hand of his true love Sophia Western.
Jory’s adaptation masterfully culls a well-paced play from a 346,747-word picaresque novel. He uses some narration to set the story up and link various episodes when necessary, but thankfully uses that device sparingly and often accompanies it with action. Of course, Jory knows the Bingham like the back of his hand, and uses its entrances/escapes to send his 12-member cast off and on in a constant and appropriate flurry of farcical activity.
There are some silly sight gags – from the way actors behave when we’re told their characters are dead to the way horses are represented and more – that add to the merriment. Perhaps Jory is reminding us that despite its 18th Century source and setting there’s no stuffiness in this story; for whatever reason, though, such goofiness, even when it’s anachronistic, works.
Handling those gags and the script’s largely Fielding-faithful language with relish is a cast led by dashing Drigan Lee as Tom. The trick with young Mr. Jones is to have him muck about without having the muck stick to him; we must continue to like and root for him even when he misbehaves. Lee nimbly walks that tightrope, and his chemistry with the charming Maren Bush as Sophia is good.
Bush and all but Lee play more than one role in this piece; among those with delightful transitions between parts are Matt Citron, as believable playing the phony piety of Bliful as he is providing us with the pushy philanderer Lord Fellamar (plus two other roles) and Alex Podulke, who among four parts is the hypocritical Thwackum and the easy-to-anger Mr. Fitzpatrick.
Heralded veterans Greg Wood (Squire Allworthy and others), Susan Riley Stevens (Mrs. Waters and more), V Craig Heidenreich (Squire Western and Doctor) and Alex Tavares (Mrs. Fitzpatrick plus two other roles) are in top form no matter what they’re doing, and ATL apprentice company members Julia Bynum, Peregrine Heard (who does nice work as servant to Jones) and Madison Niederhauser deserve kudos for their contributions as well.
A first among ensemble equals to single out for praise is Robyn Cohen as country wench Molly and city paramour Lady Bellaston. It’s not surprising that the experienced and talented Cohen creates fully engaging characters or transitions seamlessly between the two, but she finds ways through accent, gesture, movement and other means to provide us with new, and often hilarious, insights into both. One example is the way her forearms and hands stay up for much of the time as Lady Bellaston; accompanied with the restraints of a hoop skirt her Lady B has stilted onstage movement that comically looks like she’s a deranged marionette.
When you add that skirt and other exquisite Marcia Dixcy Jory costumes to Tom Burch’s can’t-believe-that’s-not-real-wood floor scenic design, Matthew Richard’s mood-and-moment lighting, Joe Cerqua’s period-evocative music, Drew Fracher’s thrilling fight direction and the aforementioned elements you have a Tom Jones for today or any other. Jory’s marvelous production certainly adds luster to ATL’s golden year.
Tom Jones, adapted from Henry Fielding’s novel and directed by Jon Jory, continues through Dec. 8 in the Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville (316 W. Main St.). Tickets ($35 and up) are available by calling (502) 584-1205 or 1-800-4ATL-TIX or online by clicking here. Audience Advisory: This show is recommended for ages 16 and up because of adult language and content.