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'To Kill a Mockingbird' review: More legal thriller than coming-of-age story

Jeff Daniels plays Atticus Finch in the Broadway

Jeff Daniels plays Atticus Finch in the Broadway production of "To KIll a Mockingbird." Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

WHAT “To Kill a Mockingbird”

WHERE Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St.

INFO $29-$169; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Harper Lee’s classic novel has been turned into a legal thriller on Broadway.

If you’ve read Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and if you grew up in the United States, there’s a good chance you have — the story now unfolding on Broadway may throw you a bit.

Oh sure, the major elements are present. A small Southern town in the mid-1930s. Three kids named Scout, Jem and Dill. And, of course, a noble lawyer named Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) who takes on the lost cause of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production is of a high standard: beautifully designed and lit, well acted, and with just the right balance of pathos, humor and outrage.

What’s missing from Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation is the novel’s vividly described community, or the sense that the story is just as much about Scout’s coming of age as it is about the crusade by Atticus, her father. Sorkin (the writer behind “The West Wing” and “The Social Network,” among others) has made his play a John Grisham-esque legal thriller revolving around a charismatic man. Atticus may now show hints of trouble and doubt, but he’s still the moral lighthouse guiding Maycomb, Alabama.

The show opens with the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and keeps returning to it at regular intervals. Practically speaking, this means that Miriam Buether’s evocative set must constantly be moved in and out, which can be cumbersome. More of a problem is the way Scout, Jem and Dill now split the narration, diluting Scout’s voice.

The trio are grown-ups looking back on past events, justifying the casting of adult actors. Celia Keenan-Bolger is especially good as Scout, and she easily could have handled all the narrative heavy lifting, preserving the crucial element of a little girl’s point of view.

This “Mockingbird” revolves around Atticus, and thankfully Daniels is sterling. Sorkin gives us more insights into the lawyer’s personality and thinking by adding conversations with Tom and with Atticus’ cook, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). This also helps boost the story’s major black characters, and it works up to a point — there’s only so much you can add without completely changing the source material.

As it is, this version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn — this is meant in a good way — but lovers of the book will miss its idiosyncratic tone.

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