NY Times raves: 5 stars for Tom Sawyer!


The New York Times. — Over the weekend I was discovering America’s newest auditorium for opera and ballet, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts here in Kansas City.

My visit was to see the first new production there by the 54-year-old Kansas City Ballet: a new three-act “Tom Sawyer” (adapted from Mark Twain’s 1876 classic Missouri novel), to a new score by Maury Yeston, and with choreography by the company’s artistic director, William Whitener. It’s quite likely that this is the first all-new, entirely American three-act ballet: it is based on an American literary classic, has an original score by an American composer and was given its premiere by an American choreographer and company.

After beginning the project many years ago, Mr. Yeston completed it in collaboration with Mr. Whitener. As a result, music and stage action complement each other all the way. The ballet is most remarkable in places where I would have least predicted.

The familiar story has been harmlessly, often shrewdly rejiggered to give the ballet just enough plot. The return of Tom and Huckleberry Finn from their pirate expedition in time to interrupt their own funeral is the climax of Act I, the nocturnal graveyard killing of the Doctor that of Act II. Act III brings the trial of Muff Potter for murder, with Tom’s testimony to save Potter; Tom and Becky Thatcher’s getting lost in the cave; and — after the recovery of Injun Joe’s loot — a happy ending.

Before arrival, I kept wondering, what does Twain’s story have to do with dance, let alone ballet? The ballet’s authors, however, had plainly asked the same question, since much of the restructuring’s effect is to supply enough dances.

The ballet is finest and most original in several places where the plot has challenged Mr. Yeston and Mr. Whitener to find a dance equivalent. Act I starts with the famous fence-painting scene, an engaging male pas de trois for Tom’s friends (successfully individualized). Town, schoolroom, church are all clearly delineated (helped by Walt Spangler’s economical but evocative décor, with the barest wooden framework for each building descending on cue, and Holly Hynes’s costumes). The Act III courtroom scene, which should be so dance-hostile, is made vivid by effects of grouping and gesture. Not all narrative moments are made clear onstage (how does Tom persuade his pals to paint the fence?), but there’s no serious confusion.

Both the score and the choreography are energetic, robust, warm, deliberately naïve (both ornery and innocent), in ways right for Twain. Mr. Yeston’s tuneful music has been orchestrated by Brad Dechter (with assistance from Peter Boyer, Andrew Kinney and Hummie — what a name for a composer! — Mann), with sonorities and harmonies that recall Copland, Barber and Prokofiev (“Romeo and Juliet”). It ranges easily from comic to sinister, from Muff Potter’s drunkenness to a rich celebration of the Mississippi River.

In Mr. Whitener’s staging each character is distinctive — none becoming one-dimensional — but all can be part of an affecting small-town ensemble. All these folk, as in Twain, have at least a streak of cartoon vitality.

Tom, marvelously danced by the young redhead Alexander Peters, is life-enhancing, with a new set of steps in every scene. For his second entry in Act I, he comes on in a cartwheel, only to arrive in a fluent, hopping, revolving arabesque (a horizontal one) — an effect so fresh it lights up the stage. Sometimes just tiny strokes — the way one of Tom’s friends enters with a high-sailing jump; the slow, juicy way Becky rises onto point — are so timed that they become piercing.

The Kansas City dancers are delights in their jumps; footwork; full-bodied, three-dimensional shapes; and lively characterization. At the end Mr. Whitener gives the townspeople a heart-catchingly sweeping adagio group dance. As it keeps changing in pattern and direction, the dancers seem to become both the Mississippi itself and the whole spirit of community and history. Other ensembles are scarcely less poetic: The human waves in which Tom and his classmates twice cross the stage are the kind of interlude that makes theater thrilling.

- Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times

“Wow. Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts is an unequivocal delight –bold and varied and bursting with youthful energy, and featuring the widest array of choreography by Whitener and a musical score of great ingenuity by the Tony Award-winning Yeston.

Yeston’s musical style is deeply rooted in the classic Broadway tradition, with strikingly singable themes for each character, mood or emotion – soaring melodies for the love couple, bouncy ditties for the comic moments of Act 1, sinister themes for the bad guys. It features several quite memorable tunes that will ensure this piece a long life on the stage. I especially liked the music for the Stone Angel sequence, and the Coplandesque opening of Act 3, whose expansive sound suggested the wide-open American West.

But there’s plenty more in the mix, from folk-like round dances to quirky Appalachian Spring hops and leaps, with suggestions of hyperactive, Tharp-like looseness. The “variations” in Act 2 featured an unfolding of the most appealing array of dance, accompanied by waltzes, marches, rags… at one point there was a pas de trois of dancing gravestones, in a beautiful melding of musical edginess and comically angular dance. A dulcet, invisible youth chorus lent a haunting Nutcracker moment to the proceedings.

- Paul Horsely, KC Independent

“Yeston’s score is a gorgeous piece of music saturated with Americana. Certain passages bring to mind Aaron Copland and other American composers we associate with folk-based symphonic music. He knows a thing or two about writing music to fit a dramatic narrative. He won Tony Awards for his Broadway shows, “Nine” and “Titanic.” For “Tom Sawyer,” he leads us along with swelling highs and nuanced lows, mixing drama with lyricism in a score that flows sensuously (and) captures the rhythms of the mighty Mississippi — Twain’s version of the river that has galvanized the imaginations of generations of writers and musicians.”

- Robert Trussle, Kansas City Star

Set to an original score by Tony-winning composer Maury Yeston , the emotionally affecting music is full of alluring melodies, dancey tunes, and bright energy that fuels the proceedings.

- Lisa Jo Sagolla, Kansas City Star

“The dancers play the various roles as if out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and the music by composer Maury Yeston is Americana to the point where you almost expect George Gershwin to be nodding along in approval.”

- Angie Fiedler Sutton, Kansas City InfozineWow. Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts is an unequivocal delight –