Village Theatre is taking on "Big River," by William Hauptman, adapted from Mark Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn." I always like to give full disclosure when I’m not wild about the material and that is the case here. Sophomore English class and a great respect for Mark Twain as a writer and a man notwithstanding, I just don’t like "Huckleberry Finn."
The fact that "Big River" is a musical with wonderful music and lyrics by Roger Miller, and that Village Theatre has a talented cast and crew make the show overall a delight, despite my dislike for the novel.
If you missed English class that week, the Cliff’s Notes version of the story is that Huckleberry Finn is a teenaged almost-orphan (he has a straitlaced aunt and a drunken sot of a father) who strains against both civilizing influences of society, and his father’s murderous delirium tremens.
When he finds out that Jim, a slave, plans to run away in order to escape being sold, Huck offers to go along for the ride and help. Along the way, Jim is constantly at risk of being discovered, and the two develop their bond of friendship as they meet a variety of characters down the river.
In his program notes, director Steve Tomkins talks about the vision of "keeping the river always in view" and scenic designer Scott Fyfe has managed to do exactly that with a magical set. Piers and pilings glide in and out of view as Huck Finn (Randy Scholz) and Jim (Rodney Hicks) take their epic journey together on a raft that slips along against a backdrop of river and sky.
Lighting designer Tom Sturge spins the days along from sunrise to sunset against that gorgeous sky.
Minus a few little technical glitches with the sound system and an occasional actor’s shadow against the backdrop, the physical presence of the show is lovely and captivating. But the music, under the direction of Tim Symons, is really the star of the show, with all its bluesy country goodness. I loved the director’s choice to bring two of the musicians on stage: fiddler Eric Chappelle and banjo-playing Mark Twain himself (John Patrick Lowrie). The opening number "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven" is a rousing, foot-stompin’ good time, while "River in the Rain" is sweet and soulful, sung by Huck and Jim in perfect harmony. Pap (David Anthony Lewis) isn’t on stage for long as Huck’s father, but his number "Guv’ment" is worth the price of admission all on its own.
Choreographer Daniel Cruz has done a marvelous job creating dance numbers that feel authentic to the period and to the music, and which lift the energy of the evening. Along with the dancing, there is some phenomenal singing in the show. Stacie Pinkney Calkins (Alice) and Claudine Mboligikperlani Nako (Alice’s Daughter) are worth mentioning as stand out performers when they appear.
The Duke (Greg McCormick Allen) and The King (Richard Gray) are two particularly colorful con men Huck and Jim pick up along the way. They are hard to take seriously as they preen and posture in ridiculous costumes, and yet they also provide the biggest threat to Jim’s freedom.
Illustrating the different realities at work in this time and place are the numbers "The Crossing," sung by captured slaves which brought the audience to tears, and "Hand for the Hog," a frivolous tongue-twister of a song sung with great style by Tom Sawyer (John David Scott). Huck and Jim sing about the juxtaposition explicitly in "Worlds Apart:" White folks and Black folks are living very different lives while sharing space together.
At the conclusion of Act I, we see Huck being wooed by the energy and humor of The Duke and The King in the number "When the Sun Goes Down in the South," completely oblivious to the danger to Jim, while Jim is aware of the risk but unable to act on his own behalf. Even when the white characters choose to do right by the slaves, we in the audience see clearly that it is a choice that white people have and Black people don’t, and that choosing well is often more a matter of ease and convenience than conscience.
"Big River" is a lengthy production and that very overlapping of the ridiculous and shallow with real and powerful emotion feels uncomfortably cluttered or uneasy at times. Perhaps "Big River" gives us a view into a world of race relations that is neither clean nor easy, and the show is true to the novel.
But even with a tight and talented ensemble, the scope is sometimes as large as the river itself, and perhaps a little unwieldy for one musical to handle. Even so, the sweep of the river is hard to resist with its larger than life characters brought to life and the beautiful music winding through it.
"Big River" runs through November 18 at Village Theatre, 303 Front St N in Issaquah (through 10/21) and 2710 Wetmore Ave in Everett (10/26-11/18). For info or tickets, call 425-392-2202 or visit villagetheatre.org.