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For people of an age, the title “Tom Jones” immediately brings to mind the 1963 British “adventure comedy” film of the same name, which so titillated and tweaked the censors with its nudges of licentiousness. For scholars, “Tom Jones” is the short name of the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding, also rich in adventure both in and out of the bedroom.
Oddly enough, playwright David Rogers chose that novel as the foundation for a send-up of the classic American melodrama. Now at Whittier Community Theatre, his “Tom Jones” simplifies the tale (which does it no harm) but also removes the comic juxtaposition of traits which has made the novel so popular for over 250 years.
In the book, Tom is profoundly naive and even noble, even as he is willingly pounced upon by the women of his time. His nemesis, Mr. Blifil, is as nefarious as they come, yet sanctimoniously “pure” according to standard social behavior. Therein lies the social commentary. In Rogers’ version, Tom is pure of heart and behavior, with thoughts only for his dear (and apparently unreachable) love, Sophia Western. Blifil sneers with the best, but as a much more cardboard villain in that he doesn’t have anyone particularly complex to wrestle against.
Be that as it may, director Eric Modyman has pulled out all the stops to make this oddly minted melodrama as silly as possible. Servant girls constantly carry cue cards for the audience to boo, cheer, or even sigh for the various characters. Indeed, those signs become so much a part of the action, they are sometimes used as serving trays. The main characters are played with conviction and even glee by a solid group of performers, and with a cleverly mobile set and (with one exception) costuming which evokes the correct time period, it has much humor to recommend it.
“Tom Jones” is the story of a foundling left on the pillow of a bachelor squire in the English countryside. Raised alongside his sister’s son, the jealous Blifil, Tom is treated as gentry but really has no fortune to speak of. When he falls for Sophia, the daughter of the neighboring gentleman, he is tossed out of the family and Sophia herself promised to Blifil. Tom must make his way to London, dreaming of a life with Sophia he knows will never be. What he doesn’t know is that Sophia sneaks out to go after him.
Jay Miramontes makes Jones sweet and somewhat dim, both honest and pure, and dedicated in body as well as soul to his love Sophia. Tom Royer, has a fine turn as Squire Allworthy, who raises Tom. Patrick Peterson has a truly inspired time as the evil Blifil, and has the costume to match. Chelsea Caracoza gives Sophia a lovely sense of selfish importance and naiveté, though she is also unfortunate in having the only costume which doesn’t work: satin and somewhat spare, and minus the wig all other women in the company wear, she ends up looking more like a Disney princess than a young lady of the 18th century. It’s actually quite a distraction.
In a huge cast, at least by WCT standards, there are a number of other standouts. Among them, Matt Koutroulis has a wonderful time as Sophia’s father, the oblivious outdoorsman. Andrea Stradling makes much of the mature Lady Bellaston, who wants to take Tom far more under her wing than he is ready for. In two separate parts, but particularly as an innkeeper, Nancy Tyler has great comic timing. Also with multiple parts, Jesse Ornelas hits his stride best as a very funny, charmingly inept highwayman.
Which is all to say that, taken just as a faux melodrama, “Tom Jones” comes off pretty well. Just don’t go expecting, well, “Tom Jones.” There is no subtlety here, in that melodrama virtually doesn’t allow for anything subtle. Still, it’s fun, it’s silly, and it has the same happy ending. That can be quite satisfying all by itself.
What: “Tom Jones” When: Through March 5, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m matinee on Sunday, February 28 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org