The name of the company is the Children’s Theatre of California, but the current premiere, Johnny Tremain, is really geared more toward teens and parents. This ambitious musical adaptation of the classic novel for young people deals with coming of age in a time of danger and uncertainty, in addition to overcoming a gruesome hand injury.Unlike some of CTC’s other original theatrical adaptations, playwright Richard Hellesen hews close to the classic original. More closely, in fact, than the dubious 1957 Disney film—which, alas, may be more familiar to some households than the prizewinning 1943 novel by Esther Forbes.
The story’s set in Boston at the onset of the Revolutionary War, providing a great opportunity for costumer Nancy Pipkin, composer Noah Agruss, and director Buck Busfield to conjure that era with clothing, music and action.
While the play has a few light moments, particularly in the show’s first half, it never glosses over the considerable dangers of living in revolutionary times. People’s political leanings have dire material consequences. Some lose their homes or their lives. A redcoat who tries to desert is sent to the firing squad by his stern commander. There’s also an element of class consciousness, and even a little bit of love interest—unusual in a show for kids.
The cast is large, with six Equity actors. That’s more than in the B Street Theater’s What the Butler Saw, Sacramento Theatre Company’s Private Lives or Capital Stage’s upcoming Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Robbie Winston plays the title role, while John Lamb, Rick Kleber, David Silberman, David Pierini, Kurt Johnson and three non-Equity actresses (Nancy Martis, Jennifer Baumgardner and Vickie Hall) handle so many parts collectively that they’re economically billed as “ensemble.”
It’s not a perfect show. While Agruss draws cleverly on standards like “Yankee Doodle,” some of the singing is sub-par. At times the story, 346 pages of novel funneled into 90 minutes of theater, sails forward at the speed of Masterplots. But the image of 16-year-old Johnny at the cusp of adulthood, surviving setbacks and living through extraordinary times, is an absorbing dramatic accomplishment. Good job!