Acito’s book wisely skips the childhood of Tom, a foundling left on the doorstep of Squire Allworthy’s estate in the English countryside, and sets the risqué tone with him as a good-hearted but lusty 19-year-old in bed with Molly Seagrim, a local peasant in the opening scene. Tom is in love with virginal but self-reliant Sophia Shepherd, daughter of the local reverend, but her father the pompous Reverend Shepherd prefers Allworthy’s legitimate nephew, the unctuous and hypocritical 18-year-old Blifil. After Tom is falsely accused of both fathering Molly’s unborn child and celebrating after Allworthy falls ill, he is banished from the only home he has ever known. Along his route to London he meets a series of women who throw themselves at him as well as the man reputedly his father, Partridge, who also acts as our narrator and becomes his man servant.
To avoid marrying Blifil, Sophia takes to the road where at an inn she meets her cousin Harriet Fitzpatrick on the run from her husband. In a scene that rivals the best in farce, they both meet Tom in flagrante with Mrs. Waters, a woman he saved on the road, as well as Harriet’s irate husband and Sophia’s father. All travel by separate roads to London where Harriet and Sophia take refuge with Harriet’s relation, the randy society hostess Lady Bellaston. Tom follows as does Fitzpatrick, and an unfortunate incident appears to end Tom’s career in his prime. However, after a series of misunderstandings and revelations, all of the hypocritical and duplicitous characters are exposed and all ends happily for the good and kind-hearted heroes and heroines.
The bouncy rock score by Englehardt to witty lyrics by Acito and Engelhardt has discernable influences in Gilbert & Sullivan, Cole Porter and 60’s British pop songs. The clever songs have pertinent and revealing titles like “Pursuit of Happiness,” “Born to Be Hanged,” “I Must Away,” “Have Another Oyster, Dear,” and “The Jig Is Up.” Wonderfully sung by the accomplished cast, they are occasionally drowned out by M. Florian Staab’s over-miked sound design. Acito’s inventive and fast-paced direction is ably abetted by the flavorful choreography of Joe Barros which runs the gamut from an Irish jig to soft-shoe to a minuet. Siena Zoë Allen’s costumes are a fanciful mash-up of 18th century and 21st century kitsch. The uncredited set design makes excellent use of the two-story architecture of the cell’s space including the three doors on the upper level which stand in for the bedrooms of the roadside inn.
Bastard Jones is particularly blessed with its casting. Evan Ruggiero as the charmingly roguish Tom is the first amputee to star in a New York musical. With a million dollar smile and a peg leg, he dances, sings, acts and cavorts with more aplomb than most actors who do not have his disability. In the course of the show, he also uses his peg leg as an electric guitar, a microphone and a sword.
In a rich and varied series of performances, the outrageously cheeky Crystal Lucas-Perry plays the over-sexed Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Waters, as well as Allworthy’s outspoken footman. Adam B. Shapiro is memorable as the canting and mealy-mouthed Rev. Shepherd, as well as the marauding Sergeant and cynical Executioner. As the plucky heroine Sophia, the beauteous Elena Wang has more than enough backbone for an 18th century heroine and beautifully sings two solo ballads, accompanying herself on stringed instruments.
Rene Ruiz is most amusing as the pun-loving, malaprop-spouting narrator and jack of all trades Partridge, with a part beefed up from the original. Alie B. Gorrie is unrecognizable as the lusty wench Molly and the demure Harriet. Matthew McGloin demonstrates his range with the insincerely pious Blifil, the furious Mr. Fitzpatrick and limp Lord Fellamar who can’t keep up with the sexual needs of Lady Bellaston. Cheryl Stern is cheerfully hypochondriacal as Bridget Allworthy, the squire’s sickly sister who succumbs soon into the story and as the crotchety but lively Landlady Nanny. Though not seen as much as some of the other characters, Tony Perry gets to play two characters at opposite ends of the spectrum: the upright and sober Squire Allworthy and the crazed Loony Mum to Landlady Nanny.
Bastard Jones is surprisingly accessible for a contemporary musical based on a long and episodic 18th century novel. Sophisticated and off-color, naughty but nice, it proves to be a sharp and irreverent entertainment. With a terrific cast and a star making performance by Evan Ruggiero, witty and clever, Bastard Jones is both a delightful 18th century and 21st century evening in the theater.
Bastard Jones (through July 16, 2017)
the cell, 338 W. 23rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.thecelltheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission