The Devil and Tom Walker
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 24, 2008
Only a few minutes in, one of the narrators of The Devil and Tom Walker informs us most straightforwardly that this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of avarice and greed. If only all moral lessons were presented as delightfully and divertingly as this one!
The Devil and Tom Walker is a new musical at Metropolitan Playhouse; conceived by its director, Yvonne Opffer Conybeare, it is based on a story by Washington Irving. The author is Anthony P. Pennino and the many songs that run through the show are by Rob Kendt (many are original while others are adapted from various traditional folk songs of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries). It's certainly not a traditional musical in any sense, but there's lots of music, and it's vital to the telling of this sprightly, oft-resonant tale. It is one of the finest new musical comedies of the season.
The story takes place around 1730 during the reign of King George II. England's vast empire is suffering a severe economic depression (at least in part due to over-extending of scarce resources—sound familiar?). In Massachusetts, a pair of tightwads who happen to be married to each other—Tom and Abigail Walker—are living together in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction: she because he won't work, and he because she nags at him to do just that. One day, Tom wanders off into the forest on his way into town, and who should he meet there but the Devil himself. Old Scratch has a proposition for Tom: he will give him the lost buried treasure of Captain Kidd in exchange for Tom's soul.
I don't want to give too many of the story's fun surprises away here. But I do need to explain that when Tom and the Devil finally make their bargain—and the Devil admits that Tom is the toughest negotiator he's ever come upon—one of the conditions attached to Tom's new-found riches is that he must employ them in a way that serves his new master. So Tom becomes a usurer, charging 10% interest to already impoverished Bostonians in dire need of cash. (To his credit, he rejects the Devil's suggestion that he invest the money in a slave-trading operation.)
Pennino tells the story in rich detail, supplemented always with appropriate songs (by Kendt) that either sound authentic or really are. The Devil himself is our principal narrator, but all of the cast members take turns with the exposition as needed. They also provide much of the music: Kendt himself is on stage (or rather, on a balcony above the stage), on piano and guitar (and sometimes adding to the vocals as well); the other performers variously perform on fiddle, guitar, and percussion. The effect overall is like story theater as this band of minstrel/actors recount and enact their timely tale in their own witty and lively way.
The cast is splendid. Erik Gratton is a most ingratiating protagonist as Tom Walker, never overplaying either the laziness or sentimentality of this somewhat archetypal American character, and proving himself a match for Michael Jerome Johnson's vivid and matter-of-fact Devil. Rebecca Hart is terrific as Tom's shrewish wife Abigail, especially capturing the mercenary qualities that emerge when she learns of the Devil's offer to buy Tom's soul. Metropolitan Playhouse regular Michael Durkin, Justin Flagg, and Sarah Hund complete the small but robust ensemble, each of them playing seemingly dozens of characters (and narrating, and playing and singing the score) effortlessly and captivatingly.
The entire show is realized on Metropolitan's small stage with elegance and simplicity by Conybeare. The design (set by Conybeare and Alex Roe, lighting by Tony Galaska, costumes by Melissa Estro) is spare, appropriate, and evocative. The pacing is brisk and the music is beautifully played. I'm not sure I've seen better work by Conybeare and Pennino. The show is a treat....a treat with a message that's clear, pertinent, and unimpeachable.
The Devil and Tom Walker—whose source material has fueled at least one other theatre work, the folk opera The Devil and Daniel Webster—deserves a long life after this premiere presentation. Its so skillfully put together that it seems a natural for venues of every size, shape, and description. (Commercial producers in NYC, take note!)