Review by Marilyn Lester
Robert Louis Stevenson’s late Victorian tale of “buccaneers and buried gold” – a rather sophisticated coming-of-age story with moralistic twists – was a best-seller at the start. Over the years it’s been imagined and re-imagined countless times in film, television, radio, and on stage – including an all-female cast in London a few years ago.
In a nutshell, young and impoverished Jim Hawkins goes off to sea in search of buried treasure; before he returns home he’ll meet the iconic Long John Silver and his crew, and will have experienced serious lessons of life and death on his journey to adulthood.
This latest “reimagining,” “Devil And The Deep,” sticks very close to the story and convention, save for a few females in traditionally male roles. All the tropes are there: Stevenson practically invented the classic pirate as we’ve come to know him, with treasure maps, “x marks the spot,” and peg-legs and parrots.
What elevates this version of “Treasure Island” is the wonderful music and the lyrics of Graham Russell, most well known for being half of the immensely popular, still-active, band “Air Supply.” A prolific and talented composer, Russell, with Katie McGhie, crafted a score with delightful underlays of Gaelic-Celtic and “piratical” themes. Music Director, Josh Freilich arranged with great sensibility and understanding. “Home,” the “eleven o’clock number,” an anthem-like, ensemble encapsulation of the moral of the story, and a lovely ballad, the penultimate “Mother’s Only Son,” are especially noteworthy. This latter tune, was sung with sensitivity by Broadway pro, Raissa Katona Bennett.
As Mother Hawkins, Bennett’s talents were largely wasted; her appearances bookended the show, giving her virtually nothing to do in the long period of the tale’s unfolding. Book writer Melissa Bell (who also contributed additional lyrics) is literate and very good with words; Bell did an excellent job In distilling and compacting a complex story. Yet, the text is still overly burdened and trimming some fat – less text between musical numbers – would help with cohesion, pace and lucidity.
“Devil And The Deep” is least served by its Director, Lisa Devine, whose choppy, hectic approach hinders the story from unfolding with flow and easy comprehension – especially as the text can use bridging and structural modifications. A more economical use of the stage also would have helped with clarity. Additionally lacking was an impetus to enhance a layered sense of menace and romance missing from this production. Miss Devine should also note that one never, never, never stages a scene in complete and total darkness; it’s confusing to the audience and doesn’t work on any level.
The twelve-member cast comported themselves well. Ethan Gabriel Riordan as Jim Hawkins and Eric Coles as Long John Silver seemed still to be searching for their characters, but were earnest. Female roles traditionally played male, were taken by Lisha McKoy as Mizzy Hands and Courtney Shaw as Benita Gunn; both actors exhibited a wonderful presence and commitment to their characters. Kire Tosevski, Kyle Minshew, Bill Newhall, Juan Luis Espinal, Kalyn West, Nick Ritacco, and Skyler Volple rounded out the cast.
A cute and creative element to “Devil And the Deep” is to be found in illuminated puppet models, especially the iconic parrot, deigned by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil (Evolve Company). Sarita Lou’s choreography was uncomplicatedly pleasing. Traditional 18th century costumes were vibrantly created by Adrienne Carlile. The simple, yet-effective set was designed by Alisa Simonel-Keegan, and was made more of by the lighting design of Jessica M. Kasprisin. Sound design by John D. Ivy needed more balance (some effects proved too intrusive) and lack of microphones for the cast often proved problematic.
As an evolving production, “Devil And The Deep,” has great potential, especially when it finds its “sea legs” and a hook that will allow it to truly stand apart from its many, many predecessors. Meanwhile, audiences will still have fun and enjoy the show, especially with that great treat of its musical score.
311 West 43rd St. (Theater on 3), 347-813, www.theatreeast.org
Opening Night Photos: Russ Weatherford “Making the Rounds with Russ”