CEDAR CITY — Rather than a big, flashy musical, the Utah Shakespeare Festival chose this year to produce Big River, the musical adaptation of Mark Twain‘s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This quiet musical succeeds precisely because the simple score (written by Roger Miller) and folksy dialogue (in the script written by William Hauptman) are so effective in communicating the show’s message that the elaborate trappings of a grand musical are unnecessary.
Following the plot of the source material rather closely, Big River tells the story of Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from the his drunken father and the oppressive town of St. Petersburg, Missouri. After a few days he meets the runaway slave Jim, who hopes to escape to free states where he can earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom. Huck agrees to help Jim, but they accidentally drift too far south on the Mississippi River. As they continue downriver, Huck finds more adventure, but Jim’s danger increases.
Director Melissa Rain Anderson had a style that “less is more” for this production—and that was exactly what Big River needs. Like many musicals, it has large ensemble numbers in it, but most of the story is about Huck and Jim’s growing relationship. Anderson was not afraid to allow quiet moments to happen on stage at critical times, such as when Huck cleans dirt off of Jim, or the song “River in the Rain.” In scenes like this, Anderson was wise to just let the audience see for themselves how Huck was overcoming his racial prejudice.
Choreographer Christine Rowan likewise kept the dancing and movement in most songs simple, with only “The Boys” having showy movements. For example, Rowan emphasized marching and crisp movements in “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” to establish the town’s rigid hierarchy and social structure. Another jewel was the vaudevillian “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” which finished the first act with energy and aplomb.
But a lot of acrobatics or complex steps would be out of place in this musical. Miller’s score harkens back to a simpler time in two ways. First, its structure—consisting mostly of 16-bar sections of an alternative verse and chorus—is more in keeping with a late 1950’s score than a show that premiere in 1985 (the era of the overblown, sweeping musical on Broadway). Second, the orchestrations are heavily inspired by American folk music, which is appropriate for the show’s setting.
Musical theatre snobs may not find the score terribly impressive, but after music director Michael Gribbin works his magic, the melodies soar, and the emotion in the actors’ voices sounds painfully real. Particularly gratifying are the harmonies in the gospel numbers “How Blest We Are,” “The Crossing,” and “Free at Last.” Gribbin also ensured that the six young male actors singing “The Boys” gave the song its needed kick of masculinity.
The best singer in the cast, though, was Ezekiel Andrew in the role of Jim. Andrew’s powerful, soothing bass voice, with its controlled vibrato makes the score sound much better than it is, and his renditions of “Free at Last,” “Muddy Water,” and “River in the Rain” are sublimely gorgeous. Andrew does his audience a favor every time he sings, and his voice is so rich that he could sing the tax code and entrance me. I also appreciate Andrew’s acting prowess, and the way he pined for his family and spoke about them with such love brought my wife to tears.
As Huckleberry Finn, Rob Riordan is lovable, and spending two and a half hours with his character is a constant pleasure. Riordan has the perfect body language for an 19th century misfit, as shown by the ease with which he smokes a pipe or his relaxed demeanor when drifting down the Mississippi River on the raft. Where Riordan excels, though, is in the depths of emotion that he puts into his singing. “Waiting for the Light to Shine” was so plaintive that it was almost Huck’s desperate prayer for something better, and “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go” was sweet in the way it showed Huck growing up.
I could rave about everyone in the cast. Michael Doherty‘s Tom Sawyer had an unbounded obsession with adventure novels, which was a source of frequent humor in the play. Chris Mixon as The King and Jim Poulos as The Duke were an enjoyable duo (though the script could emphasize more the danger that having them on the raft is for both Huck and Jim). Even bit parts in the play were portrayed impressively by this cast. Veronica Otim sang a breathtakingly beautiful “How Blest We Are” as Alice, and Colleen Baum‘s dowdy Widow Douglas was a suitable authority figure for Huck to rebel against.
K. L. Alberts designed the costumes for this production, and I cannot think of any way to possibly improve them. Alberts mostly avoided “pioneer” clichés, and instead inserted reminders that most of the places in Big River had already had a generation of White settlement and hadn’t been the frontier during Huck’s lifetime. Lace, pattern fabrics, petticoats, and other touches sent important messages about the economic environment of the Mississippi Valley of the 1840’s.
For all the beauty in Big River, there is the fact that the story deals with slavery and racial prejudice. Anderson did not flinch at portraying a taste of the ugly racial realities of the time, such as when she created a haunting “The Crossing” (where re-captured runaway slaves are brought back to Missouri). Slaves are shown on stage dressed more poorly than White characters, and the “n-word” is spoken frequently. None of this is lurid, but rather a reminder of what life was like in 1840’s America, and Anderson recognized that softening these aspects of the show would dull its power.
And powerful it is. By having an understated style and a deft touch, Anderson has created a Big River that is direct and meaningful. The cast’s wonderful performances make Big River a success on any metric, and I encourage readers to take their own trip down the Mississippi with Jim and Huck.
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