The luster of The Prince and the Pauper's having world-premiere status right here in our river city goes a long way toward forgiving its sins, however trivial. Kansas City is not known for birthing a lot of theater projects that make it much past kindergarten. Local writers Ron Simonian and Frank Higgins have had some success in other cities with their plays, and one recalls with fondness Six Women with Brain Death. But to have a "world premiere" at Starlight Theatre is something of which even the Starlight vendors can be proud. And though it has since closed its run at Starlight, the production's premiere status makes it worthy of review.
Of the title characters, the former is the progeny of an ailing king and his late queen, and the latter, that of a loutish drunk. Their paths conveniently cross and then cross again when, after the boys switch clothes so that the prince can play in some mud, the castle gates come crashing down and the boys are mistaken for each other. Cameron Bowen and Pierce Cravens, the actors who played the prince and the pauper, respectively, didn't look that much alike from the box seats yet were indistinguishable from the back of the house. Either way, the show worked only if you took it on faith that no one is the wiser.
In the story, both boys' protestations are chalked up to child's play. Edward of Tudor's valet thinks Tom, the pauper in princely clothes, merely is being imaginative, while the plebeians put down Edward in pauper drag as an uppity dreamer and a bit of a nut. How else to explain the lad's audacity to want to rise above his station?
Escaping the blows of Tom's father (Ken Jennings), Edward finds a mentor in Miles Hendon (Marc Kudish), a stranger in town with a taste for the grape. Miles doesn't believe the boy either, but at least Edward finds a soul mate to hang out with. Meanwhile, the king (the miscast Ira Hawkins) dies and the impostor prince is elevated to that position in a rousing first-act finale that leaves the audience itching to see what develops.
The show's creators have said that where they've selectively chopped away at Twain's text, it was to give the male relationships more light. The lovey-dovey side plots were less important to them than the book's message about fathers and sons, and that's just as well. There is plenty going on without adding swooning adolescent love.
But what really stands out is the timeless theme of empathy -- how walking in another's shoes forever widens a narrow perspective. Without beating us about the head with it, the show didn't disappoint in making us believe that the young king will be a better man by seeing how the poor fare beyond the moat.
The score is of the contemporary pop variety that makes such Frank Wildhorn shows as Jekyll & Hyde both loved and scorned. The second act's numbers are more traditionally Broadway, from the poignant "Lord Let Our Love Survive" and "Dream Away" to the rollicking "For His Own Good," where the male members of the king's court get to become Rockettes.
Another fine song, "All the Things Your Father Couldn't Say," sung by a dying king to his stand-in prince, unfortunately was butchered by the winded and vocally troubled Hawkins. He was wrong for the role not only because his singing was scratchy and flat but also for a more complicated reason: Hawkins is black and was nontraditionally cast as the father of the white, redheaded Edward. It's one thing to make the palette multicultural; it's quite another to force an agenda with a color-blind shoehorn. You won't see Melanie Griffith, for example, playing Harriet Tubman any time soon, and a black King Henry in this context is just as ridiculous. Some will say, with varying degrees of truth, that you cast the best person for the role, regardless of his color. But Hawkins wasn't good in the role, and no argument for his presence holds water.
The young prince and pauper, however, were more than decent. Bowen, in particular, was often wonderful. He's got the timing and stage presence of Nathan Lane with the potential to mature into a James Van Der Beek. Of the local performers mixed among the New York cast, Sarah Cline, playing Tom's sister, and Kip Niven in a tiny but memorable role displayed great potential. And the sound from the orchestra pit was strong and lush, no doubt because Molly Jessup was in possession of the baton.