Review: “Tom Jones”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Feb. 23
Tickets: $25-$75
Phone: 847-673-6300

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I don’t know if Artistic Director BJ Jones had escape from brutal weather in mind when he chose “Tom Jones” for Northlight Theatre’s mid-winter production, but the play, adapted by Jon Jory from Henry Fielding’s picaresque 1749 novel, serves that purpose nicely.

Distilling the massive tome replete with multiple digressions down to two-plus hours, Jory crafts a swiftly paced coming-of-age tale that cannily captures the humor of the dichotomy between the narration and action, as well as satirizing 18th-century attitudes and practices pertaining to class, religion, marriage, sex and a whole lot more. Director William Brown and his talented ensemble and designers create a stylish, lighthearted romp that happily rolls along even when the storytelling could be a little clearer and some of the acting less cartoonish. The show isn’t as bawdy as the film starring Albert Finney, but there’s enough innuendo and double entendre for an all-ages audience.

In Sam Ashdown, Brown has a title character with the requisite good looks, gracefulness, impulsive spirit and basic decency, though he’s missing the sexual charisma necessary to account for all the women being so eager to jump into bed with him. This foundling comes across as an innocent victim of his own generous nature who can’t say no to an alluring female any more than he can stomach unfairness or the suffering of those he loves, which is why he’s always getting into trouble.

Those women are played by a quartet of actresses who take on multiple roles with aplomb, starting with Molly Glynn as Molly, the country wench who first seduces Tom, and later as Lady Bellaston, the fashionable and well-connected older woman with whom he has an affair in London. Nora Fiffer shines as Sophia Western, his one true love since childhood who comes to terms with his transgressions, and the scenes between them are among the evening’s most charming. Melanie Keller is best as Mrs. Waters, the woman of dubious reputation Tom rescues on the road, while Cristina Panfilio does triple duty as Miss Bridget, sister to Tom’s benefactor, Squire Allworthy; Sophie’s aunt, Miss Western, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a lady Tom meets at an inn, who is running away from an abusive husband.

Eric Parks portrays the belligerent Mr. Fitzpatrick, as well as aptly named Thwackum, the nasty, self-righteous, hypocritical tutor to Tom and Blifil, Squire Allworthy’s smug, sneaky, mean-spirited nephew and legitimate heir, embodied by Chris Amos. Marcus Truschinski as the tolerant-to-a-point Allworthy and John Lister as the blustery and uncouth Squire Western, who’d rather see his daughter Sophie marry Blifil for his inheritance than Tom for love, round out the cast.
With lots of flora and rustic-looking wood, Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s multilevel scenic design evokes 18th century English pastoral paintings (as intended) yet is functional enough for the London scenes. It also allows the ever-changing narrators to perch overlooking the action. The often witty, sometimes sexy costumes by Rachel Anne Healy and Carolyn Cristofani are delightful, and the women especially make the most of them. Finally, credit for the moment I found funniest goes to fight choreographer Kevin Asselin: It’s a sight gag in the middle of one of the many swashbuckler-worthy sword fights.