Big River; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Book by William Hauptman. Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller. Directed by John Simpkins. Choreographed by Jennifer Werner. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Joseph Allen as Huck Finn, Nicholas Ward as Jim; photo: provided
"River, I love you just the same."
Joseph Allen as Huck Finn; photo: provided
After many years of not seeing this musical at all, this is the second new production of "Big River" I have seen in under three weeks, the first one at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont and now this one at the Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Connecticut. It is very interesting to be granted such a perspective on a show that won seven out of a possible ten Tony Awards (beating out "Grind,""Leader of the Pack," and "Quilters" for Best Musical) and eight out of a possible thirteen Drama Desk Awards in 1985 but never made a deep impression on the granite face of musical theater. Its 2004 revival won a special Tony for Excellence in Theater - primarily for its use of deaf actors. Its pedigree is an elite one. It has a score by pop/country/comedy songwriter Roger Miller - he of "King of the Road" fame. Its book is based on the 1884 classic novel by classic humorist Mark Twain. The language in the play is not censored and made politically correct but rather illustrates the lingo and attitudes of the 1840s perfectly. . .which has always bothered a few people.
For the sake of those who don't already know, it is the story of two men, an escaped slave named Jim and Huckleberry Finn, the almost-adopted son of the woman who owns Jim, the teenage son of a deplorable river rat, a drunken lout. Huck is wild, thoughtless yet contemplative and Jim is domestic, seeking freedom in order to work to buy his wife and children into freedom. Their flight together is just one of those things that should not happen but it does and the show presents us with their trip on the River down into slave territories and the growth of their friendship. The show is at its most tender whenever these two characters duet in a song. This happens three times and each time the combination of talents and sentiments makes a difference.
I cannot claim this as one of my favorite shows but it has never failed to touch me. Daniel Jenkins and Ron Richardson in the original cast were terrific together. So were Anthony Ingargiola and Reji Woods in Vermont. And, now, so are Joseph Allen and Nicholas Ward in Connecticut. Normally I shun the concept of perfectly written and cannot be destroyed musical theater. I have all too recently seen a classic destroyed by an amazingly uninnovative director. The two concurrent productions of this show are presenting slightly different looks at the story and both have amazing strengths.
The two shows are marginally exactly the same only different. In Sharon, for example, there is no Mark Twain on stage while in Bennington there is. (There was Twain in both the original and the revival, so I rather expected him in Sharon.) Portions of the book have been cut along with one song in Vermont, but the edition in Connecticut seems relatively complete, sans Twain. In Vermont, the show ran two hours and seventeen minutes with the intermission and in Connecticut it ran two hours and thirty five minutes altogether. Differences aside, the impact of this show is identical everytime I see it.
That is due to the depth of the story as it deals with two radically different men, different in education, mindset, disposition, age and race, who come to depend upon one another and whose honest, caring relationship is one of the greatest non-sexual love stories ever written. Twain created two people whose growing dependence is beyond expectation; it forges a man out of a boy and a protector out of a slave. Like the words or not, like the content or not, the context is a standout and it makes for very good theater.
Joseph Allen is a fine Huck. He has youthful exuberance down perfectly and he makes the emotional transformation beautiful to behold. The honesty in his performance gives Huck a more than merely traditional place in the world of well-wrought characters. Allen takes young Finn into a radiant place where angels do indeed watch over men and the devil can be kept at bay.
Nicholas Ward's Jim is a strong and beautiful man whose voice overwhelms your senses. When he speaks or when he sings he is able to capture your complete attention and hold it for as long as he can. When he talks about his daughter he brings tears to your eyes without ever becoming maudlin or sentimental. When he sings of his freedom with the other slaves around him you cannot be anything but touched.
The three villains of the piece, played by Travis Mitchell and Thomas Cannizzaro, are well defined and most intriguing with Pap Finn perhaps the most brutal in recent memory. Alex Dorf gives Tom Sawyer wonderful moments including the funniest song in the show, "Hand for the Hog," a piece I've always loved (cut in Vermont, boo hoo).
Other stand-outs in the show are Carrie Lyn Brandon as Mary Jane Wilkes, Julia Hemp as Sally Phelps, Galayna Castillo as Alice (another great voice), Johnathan Teeling as Young Fool and Dave Cadwell as the Doctor.
A wonderful nine piece band under the directon of James Cunningham, though over-miked, play wonderfully. Josh Smith's scenic design for the show is fascinating if a bit clumsy, Michelle Eden Humphrey's costumes are just a bit too one-key (Tom Sawyer, for example, would have profited from a proper travelling suit in the second act), and Ken Wills lighting provided excellent opportunities to portray place and time of day. Emma Wilk, sound design, needs to refine her balances and give us clearer voices.
Jennifer Werner's dances were nicely done, very much in keeping with the satire of the show's authors while John Simpkins fine direction has kept the show moving along, moving us emotionally and moving through history with a quasi-period flair. He pushes the latter just enough to keep us fascinated yet a bit removed from heavy-duty emotional involvement with the characters. He took away faux sentiment about Huck's Pap and provided no sensual excitement in Huck's first kiss. This period piece is presented as almost too reverant a showcase for its period, but I liked the overall accomplishment in this very big river-bound show.
Nicholas Ward as Jim; photo: provided
Big River plays at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon, Connecticut through July 31. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-364-7469 or go on line at sharonplayhouse.org.