Rainbow's 'Tom Sawyer' dark but playful

Rainbow Company is offering an unusually dark version of "Tom Sawyer."

Adapters Sara Spencer and Brian Kral frame the action in a cave where our hero is fighting for his life. The lights are often dim, a death scene is slow and brutal (the show is recommended for third-graders and up) and the curtain call is about the only time life seems full of sun.

That's not to say the production isn't often playful.

Director Kral makes sure that late 1800s life in and around the Mississippi River feels quaint and Norman Rockwellish. There's an extended silent sequence in which three boys make their way down the waterway, climb aboard a bank, fish, eat their bounty and then enjoy a smoke. It dramatizes a fantasy boyhood. But the atmosphere is not blindly idyllic.

In the title role, David Tovar gets us to understand why his character would inspire strong feelings of love and exasperation. When Tovar taunts his classmates or tries to charm his Aunt Polly or flirts openly with his heartthrob Becky, you have no doubt that he's dangerously and irresistibly manipulative. Cory Covell, in overalls and an unruly mop of hair, convinces us that his Huck Finn could not easily be domesticated. He's like a carefree animal out of "The Jungle Book." And Jose Anthony as the evil Injun Joe is just about the meanest critter you'd ever want to come across. (He gets his comeuppance at the curtain call, as if to tell the kids, "We were only kidding.")

Jody Caley's eerie lighting gives you the creeps, while J Neal's sound brings an extra dimension to the physical environment (isn't the Mississippi all about sound?).

For some reason, Kral's blocking feels off much of the time, with arbitrary and unmotivated movement. A major moment when dead characters appear at their own funeral is rushed and cold; it doesn't provide the needed payoff. And Kris Van Riper's set - generic platforms of various sizes - is unimaginative.

But the show is good enough to encourage young readers to give Twain a try. And the cast is filled with charisma. They suggest that being mischievous is much of the joy in being young.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.