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Theater review: Treasure Island

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A full 15 years have passed since Alan Poindexter first directed Treasure Island for Children's Theatre at the old Fantasy Palace on Morehead Street. Now he has the amazing resources of ImaginOn at his disposal to give the spectacle more technical dazzle, a new mix of actors to revitalize the familiar characters, and a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's great pirate potboiler by Ken Ludwig to make sure everything takes on a fresh gloss. Expanded to 91 minutes -- plus intermission -- story details can be as rich and colorful as the costumes and characters.

So has the more mature Poindexter frittered away all these advantages to bring us to a duller, more family-friendly Island? No way, bucko.

After scaring the snot out of anklebiters last fall with his version of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Poindexter shows no sign of easing up here. Decibels are down vis-à-vis The Beast, but swords, knives, guns, and gore -- all finely choreographed and tech-directed -- are trending radically upwards. On the other hand, the action intensity, as Stevenson demonstrates the manliness of freebooting capitalism, is matched by the emotional depth of the relationship that Ludwig's adaptation allows to flower between young Jim Hawkins, our narrator, and the wily Long John Silver. This is a complex pirate-son bond if ever there was one, not simplified for mindless family consumption, and it's doubtful if any previous film version or theater production has made it nearly as moving.

Plenty of acting mileage, costuming, and carpentry have gone into Mark Sutton's richly ambiguous portrait of the peg-legged buccaneer. Through the twists and turns of the plot -- with the pirates, after seemingly routing Hawkins' good-guy allies, fighting as fiercely among themselves -- we can actually see why Jim grows to love Long John like a father, cutthroat though he is. Obviously, high-schooler Isaac Josephthal as Jim is doing a phenomenal job of keeping the process of Hawkins' maturation in sharp focus, especially where the adventure leads him to admit gray into his moral spectrum in addition to black and white.

Sutton and Josephthal certainly don't overshadow the rest of the rogues' gallery woven into this yarn. Chad Calvert is larger-than-life as Billy Bones, the dying bearer of the treasure map who turns Jim's life upside-down during his sojourn at the Admiral Benbow Inn, where Jim fearfully waits on him. So how colossal must James Dracy be as Blind Pew, following in pursuit and believably making Bones quiver with terror? One look at Pew's entrance is enough to convince anybody, young or old, that we're in for a thrilling ride.

The good folk in Jim's life, beginning with Barbi VanSchaick as his mom, are nicely shaded and three-dimensional. Steven Ivey brings a steely physical courage to Dr. Livesey as he stands toe-to-toe with Billy Bones, Ashby Blakely blandishes his special comic mix of fastidiousness and foppery upon shipowner Squire Trelawney, and as Captain Smollett, Nathan Rouse brings a towering presence seemingly swelled from afar by Buckingham Palace. Vedy British indeed.

Sprouting up amid the strife is wildcard hermit Ben Gunn, played with gangly eccentricity by Jon Parker Douglas. In much the same way, amid the palpable perils faced by Jim and his fellow treasure hunters, a sense of jubilant fun filters through the intricate fabric of adventure. Younglings clinging at the beginning to mommy and daddy gradually catch on if they persevere. They loosen their grips and let themselves get carried along. Everybody gets a cut of this treasure.

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