A-Team Brings Childlike ‘Treasure Island’ to Alley
By JOHN DeMERS
Arts Houston, May 2007
Every time you see, hear or read about a pirate with a peg leg – and especially if he’s got a parrot on his shoulder - and every time you hear about a treasure map on which, of course, X marks the spot, you owe a nod of gratitude to one of literature’s most read, most adapted and most performed stories.
“Treasure Island” was penned in 1881 by a sickly 30-year-old Scot named Robert Louis Stevenson, writing about the tropics amid the cold winds of his own highlands and the deep snows of Switzerland. This seafaring yarn by way of coming-of-age story finds its way onstage at the Alley Theatre this month – with an assist from some of the biggest names on Broadway and beyond.
“Like everyone else in the world, I grew up with this story,” says scenic designer Eugene Lee, who found time for his first-ever Houston show between keeping tabs on all the productions of “Wicked” in New York and London as well as on tour and his new, big-budget Broadway entertainment, “The Pirate Queen.” It’s worth noting that his Broadway pirate happens to be a woman – a gender missing entirely from Stevenson’s story.
“My grandfather was a writer of children’s books, and I spent my summers with him in Wisconsin with all the usual books around, including ‘Treasure Island,’” Lee says. “I see this as all about storytelling. It’s not about trying to do an opera. I think we’re creating something that has fun, playful ideas about storytelling.”
For the new Alley version, artistic director Gregory Boyd turned to the tirelessly inventive Ken Ludwig, who in addition to Broadway hits like “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You” has evolved into something of a Houston treasure. Over the past couple of seasons, Ludwig has written “Leading Ladies” and “Be My Baby” for world premieres here. Lee was hired to design the sets, along with costume designer Constance Hoffman, lighting designer Howell Binkley and sound designer John Gromada. Their combined resumes take in several Broadway hits, from “Jersey Boys” to “Steel Magnolias” to “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
From Ludwig’s perspective, one of the best things to come out of this commission was being forced to re-read the book, as an adult and as a professional. The novel, he says, was even better than he remembered it, “moving along like a rocket” from big scene to big scene with little to slow it down in between. Even the narrator, young Jim Hawkins, impressed him – so that voice becomes the “glue” for the play as well.
“I’ve really come to love the Alley as my home theater,” says Ludwig, who was named an Alley associate artist a few months ago. “When I first got there, I just enjoyed the people. It all has to do with Greg Boyd – his philosophy and his manner and his taste and how smart he is. From the minute I walked in, Greg made me feel so much a part of this theater. I’ve worked everyplace and had five shows on Broadway, and what’s going on at the Alley is all first class.”
Stevenson’s first success as a novelist, “Treasure Island” traveled a lengthy road to achieve even that. It was actually serialized first – as many now-classic novels by Dickens, Hardy and others were in those days – this time in a children’s magazine called Young Folks. The work’s original title was “The Sea Cook, or Treasure Island.” Happily, the culinary reference got dropped quickly, especially when it appeared as a book in 1883.
While the novel counts among its literary influences Daniel Dafoe, Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving, and Henry James and Gerard Manley Hopkins among its least likely fans, the greatest proof of its magic may well be how many times its been just plain lifted from. Its most visible offspring are probably the fast-food seafood chain named after its main pirate, Long John Silvers, and the recent blockbuster Johnny Depp franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean,” named after the Disney theme-park ride with a clear debt to Stevenson’s story.
Most impressively, there have been more than 50 movie and TV versions of “Treasure Island,” starting with a silent film in 1920 and a talkie from MGM in 1934. In 1950, Disney released its first run at the story, which also happened to be its first-ever completely live-action feature film. Other creative spins include the very lively (and musical!) “Muppet Treasure Island,” Disney’s “Treasure Planet” (animated and moved into the future, with Long John Silver portrayed as a cyborg) and a 1990 TV film starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston.