By Tyler Grezaffi
The excitement and trials of youth are something that—regardless of background—everyone can say they have enjoyed, or still enjoy. Simply having access to the outdoors and a sense of adventure can quickly lead to times of which we grow fond as we get older. It is in the timeless story of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where one can still attune with the roots of true exploration and mischief.
Lucky for residents of Baton Rouge, the musical adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will kick off Playmakers of Baton Rouge’s 33rd season this Friday at the Reilly Theatre.
Playmakers is now in the hands of new Artistic Director, Colt Neidhardt. Originally from Crawford Nebraska, he attended The University of Nebraska-Omaha and is fresh out of LSU’s MFA acting program. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be his first production as Artistic Director of Playmakers.
“The first shows of our seasons are always our Young Professional’s shows,” says Neidhardt while sitting in the Reilly Theatre. Casting primarily from their pool of young actors, the production involves 24 young actors as well as two professional actors from the community.
A handful of those young actors discuss their experience.
“It’s been awesome,” says Hayden Ponjuan (Tom Sawyer), a 14-year-old full of enthusiasm for the musical. “This is one of my first shows being with my father, and he’s one of the professionals in the show. The rehearsal process has been really unique seeing him in his element, doing what he loves to do.”
Sitting next to Tom is 15-year-old Revathi Menon (Huckleberry Finn) and 12-year-old Ashley Stevens (Becky Thatcher). They too have been enjoying their experience with Playmakers.
“I constantly want to be here, because I just love singing and acting and dancing” says Menon, while Stevens discusses the common bond experienced in theatre. “You grow in friendship with a lot of these people and we’re closer than ever since we started.”
Neidhardt goes on to explain their ambitious rehearsal schedule, which began in the last week of July, giving them just over two weeks before adding in the technical aspects of the show, along with props and costumes. Not exactly a small feat for a cast primarily consisting of young actors ranging from grade school to high school. “We bring them in for day-long rehearsals for a couple of days before they go back to school.” Neidhardt explains their formula for efficiency. “We call it kind of a boot-camp, basically; running blocking, or all of the music, or all of the dances, and then we start to fold it all in together.”
And all the parts were there this past Friday at their rehersal. It’s hard to tell the cast has only been rehearsing for two weeks. Ponjuan bursts with youthful energy in every scene as the memorable Tom Sawyer. Jorge Ponjuan—his father and one of the few adult actors in the musical—plays the iconic Injun Joe as a cold and intimidating antagonist. Young audiences will surely enjoy fearing this villain thanks to Jorge’s larger-than-life booming voice.
Younger audience members will also discover a good time in the impressive aspects of the show’s technical production. The accompanying bluegrass music might put one right in the mood to go on an adventure in the outdoors though they won’t even have to leave their seats. Cool, dark blue lighting and shadows mixed with the echoed dripping of water make the cave sequence feel like the audience is right there with the main characters, one step away from alerting a nest of bats.
Though Playmakers of Baton Rouge is great about delivering shows appropriate for young audience members, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, like the timeless story itself, delivers something to all ages.
“I think there’s a lot of discovery about youth,” says Neidhardt. “There’s this interesting tension about what things do we learn and how do we evolve as we grow up and where do we take life lessons from; what influences us.”
“I guess the hope is that the audience goes back to a place in time in their life and can kind of reflect on what it was to be young and what it is to have those different experiences growing up.”
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer opens this Friday, August 21st at 7 p.m. in the Reilly Theatre and runs for two weekends. Additional information can be found on their website, playmakersbr.org.