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A voyage to 'Treasure Island' 

Arkansas Rep premieres new musical based on the classic tale.

click to enlarge Richard B. Watson stars as Long John Silver in The Rep's production of "Treasure Island, A New Musical." image
  • Richard B. Watson stars as Long John Silver in The Rep's production of "Treasure Island, A New Musical."

Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" is responsible for establishing many of the foundational pirate-adventure archetypes — the peg-legged captain with a parrot on his shoulder, rum-soaked mutinies, X marks the spot, secret maps for buried treasure. In the 130 or so years since the classic children's book was published, there have been dozens of swashbuckling, epic adaptations for film, TV, radio and theatre. So you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that there are also some timeless moral questions subtly woven into the work.

Those quandaries — what would I do and how far would I be willing to go for riches? — are the central themes in a brand new musical version of "Treasure Island" that will have its world premiere this week at The Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It's an impressive cast and crew, with actors who've appeared in some of the most popular Broadway and traveling shows in recent years, including "Dreamgirls," "Wicked," "Billy Elliot" and many others.

The production is directed and choreographed by Brett Smock, with the book by Smock and Carla Vitale, and music and lyrics by Corinne Aquilina. Stanley Meyer is the set designer, Rafael Colon Castanera (in his 12th season at The Rep) designed the costumes and Dan Ozminkowski is the lighting designer. It's a seasoned creative team, several of whom made some time recently to discuss the production and offer a sneak-peek of the set and costumes.

Smock, Vitale and Aquilina began work on the adaptation in 2006 at a small workshop in New York. "We've always seen this story as one lone boy against overwhelming odds in the face of moral and physical adversity," Smock said. As the world economy nearly melted down in 2008 — due in no small part to selfishness on scales grand and small — "it simply sharpened and honed the focus for us," he said. "We've always put greed at the front, and we've leveraged the show against what people do in the face of having more, wanting more, getting more. When 2008 hit, it became clear that we had a very relevant story on our hands."

Of course, another effect of the 2008 crisis was that money became tight everywhere. Theatre companies were no exception. "These are tough times to produce new works in," Smock said. "And even though they are being done, The Rep certainly steps into risky waters financially and artistically, and I think that we have a great sense of respect and thanks to them, because they're taking a bold step producing a world premiere of a new piece. There's a lot to be said for that."

"The Stevenson story itself is a grand, epic story with iconic characters, and you can't ignore that it's a huge story," Vitale said. "What we needed to do was make it as personal as possible. So through economic constraints for theater in general, we can't have a story with 40 pirates."

Thus, while staying true to the original work, the creators honed the story down to 12 actors, in the process synthesizing or combining some of the original's characters.

The music of this new version of "Treasure Island" also looks at issues relevant to today's audiences, and the songs and instrumentation will be geared toward contemporary theatergoers, Aquilina said. "I've chosen to use strings because it's such a flowing show. It takes place on water, it goes from land to water to the island, and I like the strings because it's almost like a movie score brought to life," she said.

Smock echoed that assessment. The score has "some really contemporary qualities to it that, I think, allow us to live in that time without ever stepping too far backward."

" 'Treasure Island' the way we could've done it might have been with a squeezebox and a lot of white wigs and a bird, you know?" Smock said. "And you will not find that here. We were never interested in sea chanties."

The look of the set and the characters also drive that fact home. Castanera's costumes combine haute couture and grindhouse horror, with a result that is compelling and even chilling, certainly not cutesy or anachronistic. The shapes of the costumes suggest traditional notions of pirate garb, but they're also otherworldly, intense and, in a few cases, scary looking.

That many-things-at-once vibe is also present in Meyer's spectral, evocative set design, which is fairly far removed from his work on the Broadway production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" or the premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida."

"It's not a palm tree, it's not a ship, it's not an island, it's not the ocean, but yet it's all those things," he said of the set. "From the very beginning we wanted to approach this as nonliteral. The space would be all of those things and also this big platter to present the actors and the action."

The action begins with the opening of "Treasure Island" at 8 p.m. Friday, with a champagne reception and a cast meet-and-greet in the lobby afterward. The show runs through March 31, 7 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30-$60, with a half-price discount for students with ID.

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