Watching Northlight Theatre's fabulous Chicago-area premiere of "Tom Jones" opening weekend, I had a hard time deciding who was having a better time: the audience or the actors.
The laughter from the house pointed to the audience, who likely found director William Brown's sexy, high-spirited romp the remedy for a midwinter malaise. Then again, Brown's first-rate ensemble appeared to be having the time of their professional lives.
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"Tom Jones"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 23. No 1 p.m. show Feb. 5; no 7:30 p.m. show Feb 4 and 12; no 7 p.m. show Feb. 2 and 23
Running time: About two hours and 10 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For adults, contains sexual content
Either way, it's a win-win scenario. And it's not surprising, what with Brown's canny direction and Jon Jory's merry adaptation of the 1749 Henry Fielding novel chronicling a young man's erotic escapades.
Jory's flair for translating classic texts to the stage was evident in 2011 when Northlight produced his stage version of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." His "Tom Jones" unfolds as a breezy, sexual-coming-of-age comedy seasoned with a bit of social satire and neatly narrated by several different (mostly female) characters, who take care that Tom's assorted trysts remain within PG-13 parameters. And if that's not enough, there's a fair amount of swashbuckling, including several rollicking exchanges between male combatants in various states of undress. One thing about this creative team, they think of everything.
The agile, fresh-faced, adorably guileless Sam Ashdown stars as Tom -- "born for the pleasure of women and the consternation of men" -- who, as a foundling, was raised by the upright Squire Allworthy (Marcus Truschinski).Winningly played by Ashdown, this accidental ladies man is not so much a scoundrel and seducer as he is a naive young man with raging hormones and boundless affection for women. So great is that affection, that he can't bear to reject their seductions. As a result, he frequently finds himself in compromising positions with comely ladies from which he must extricate himself, often at the point of a sword.
Tom's introduction to the joys of sex falls to Molly, a lusty serving girl played by Molly Glynn. Other pursuers include Melanie Keller's damsel-in-distress Mrs. Waters, with whom Tom shares a rather arousing supper. Tom's next paramour is Mrs. Fitzpatrick, played by Cristina Panfilio, who also makes an engaging narrator. She's fleeing her jealous husband, a raging Scotsman played by Eric Parks, who's determined to dispatch his wife's lover. That is until he gets sidetracked by a deliciously humorous homoerotic reunion with fellow soldier Maclachlan, played with gusto by Truschinski. The last of Tom's lovers is Lady Bellaston. Formidably played by Glynn (who also does a fine job playing a put-upon innkeeper), Lady Bellaston is the closest thing "Tom Jones" has to a villain: an aristocrat with ice in her veins, a hankering for an attractive young man and the resources to get what she wants.
Amorous adventures aside, Tom's true love remains the virtuous Sophia (Nora Fiffer). Unfortunately her father -- a sputtering squire played with comic bluster by John Lister (whose musket-loading bit of business late in the play earns every belly laugh it gets) -- has other ideas. He wants to marry her off to Chris Amos' self-serving, scheming Blifil, Tom's cousin, whose only attribute is that he was born on the right side of the blanket.
The action unfolds on Jeffrey D. Kmiec's rustic, multilevel set featuring a lofted bedchamber and a lush, leafy tree canopy. In his program notes, Northlight artistic director BJ Jones described the production as a "feast for the eyes." Indeed it is, with Kmiec's simple bucolic set providing the backdrop for Rachel Anne Healy and Carolyn Cristofani's beautiful costumes, which range from deep-hued satin gowns and shimmering brocade coats to simple cotton shifts and a corset that looks like it's made out of pleather.
From the droll dialogue to the lovely set to the splendid performances, this production's delights are plentiful. And they continue even after the curtain comes down.
It's not unusual for audience members to scurry for the exit the minute the play ends. Resist the urge and stick around for the curtain call.
You'll be glad you did.