The American Legacy
Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

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Reviews - The Devil and Tom Walker

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!)

New York Theatre Wire

By Larry Litt

If you're looking to spend a couple of enjoyable hours with delightful songs, storytelling and capable acting about The Devil conning a ne'er-do-well into lending money to greedy colonial New Englanders, then watch him justify foreclosing on their properties and shrug at their ruined lives, then this very timely show is just the ticket for a lively Springtime entertainment.

The Devil is this wonderful little musical's metaphor for the all important and eminently current carping about rapacious American greed in the guise of helping people through usury. Under Yvonne Opffer Conyeare's lyrical direction we are witnessing the Ur story of mortgage banking, hope ending with declining fortunes, alongside the acquisition of massive wealth for the lender. Doesn't sound like much fun, but it is. Because it's our story, ultimately American and hits very close to home.

Michael Jerome Johnson as The Devil gleefully tells his tale. He wittily and honestly plays Old Scratch as a businessman seeking other businessmen to carry on his nefarious work. Kind of a successful brokerage or franchise deal for those willing to sell their souls. He has no trouble getting clients until he meets Tom Walker, the laziest man in colonial Massachusetts, played both indolently and energetically by by Erik Gratton.

By contrast Rebecca Hart as Tom's shrewish wife Abigail is ready willing and able to be bought. In fact she craves wealth so much she bakes griddle cakes for her Satanic would be mentor. But alas wealth is not her destiny. Perhaps she burned in Hell from a kiss on the Hot One's lips.

However it's Michael Durkin's many characterizations that bring the show it's biggest laughs and it's inherent morality. His humanity comes through in every role as he criticizes, guides and supports the demonically enmeshed Tom. Durkin is a fine character actor who adds wisdom to the otherwise seedy state of financial and social relations in 18th century Boston. Has much changed?

Perky Sarah Hund is a wonderful comedienne who shows us the ridiculous and the pathos of colonial manners. She's a bad girl, a good girl, a victim and a wonderful dancer. Her elastic expressions transport her emotions directly to us in the intimate Metropolitan Playhouse environment.

The most diverse character requirements were met by Justin Flagg in his New York debut. His age range, accents and ability to convince were superlative. He was at differing moments masking many inner secrets, especially while playing the religious hypocrite.

Adapter Anthony P. Pennino knows this is a pertinent story and gave it language that could be understood by anyone, even those without an American history background. Along with composer-lyricist Rob Kendt this team provided both an educational and moral message in song and story. A story well worth examining in light of the times in which we live.