WEST VALLEY CITY — For anyone with a little adventure in their heart, and those willing to abandon hope for a plot, Big River is the perfect show.
As Hale Center Theatre reminds the audience from their first moments in the hall, there is no plot. There is no meaning to the actions taking place, and there is no moral. There is only a story. The story that Mark Twain wrote about a young boy and a runaway slave on the Big River, and the adventures such a story can hold. Adventure is the main driver to the show, and William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), together with the directorial vision of David Weekes, create an unforgettable adventure.
The choreography for this show was simple and very well suited to the theme of the show. Jennifer Hill-Barlow incorporated the feeling and adventure of Huckleberry Finn into the songs, requiring a softer touch. Some special highlights included the rambunctious and well-formed fun in “The Boys” and the coordinated exuberance of “When The Sun Goes Down in The South.” Overall, the feeling for the show was captured well within the brilliantly crafted and timed choreography.
The vocal talent in the cast was strong and varied, from a lovely alto from Makenzie Belnap as Mary Jane Wilkes, to the deep resonance of Harry Bonner as Jim. Kooper Campbell as Huckleberry Finn (or Huck) delivered the fun and excitement of the part fantastically. While Campbell’s ageless look helped show the idea that he is a young boy, it was really the high tenor voice and boyish charm that sold his performance in the role. While there were several moments throughout the show in songs where a rhythm or two slipped and was lost (such as “River In the Rain”), Campbell definitely compensated for this setback in other songs throughout the performance. A notable aspect of Campbell’s performance that was particularly impressive was the seamless switch between playing Huck Finn and also playing the Narrator. The show is written as a story told by Huck, and the transition Campbell created between the interaction with other actors and with the audience seemed natural. This gave the feeling that each person in the audience was a friend of Huck’s, gathered around to hear another of his tall tales.
Bonner nicely played Jim, the other leading role in the production, complimenting Huck’s youthful agility with an aged wisdom and a youthful heart of his own. The two combined their act beautifully in their scene work, playing off of each other naturally. The chemistry transitioned effortlessly into their duets, where there were plenty of tough harmonies to go around. A special highlight was the song “Muddy Water,” where the two men introduce the idea of being on the Big River for the first time by pushing off the shore in their raft. Bonner and Campbell showed the love their character had for the river through their smoothly executed song. The song was especially impressive, as it is performed floating on a raft in the river and rowing downstream mid-song.
The set for this show was a wonder to behold, and breathtaking in its complexity. The transitioning of the set pieces to allow for the running river in the middle of the stage was flawless in design. This design had myself and my guest scratching our heads upon entering, wondering how it was possible to have the river (which we had heard about) while having this seemingly full stage in the set as well. Without revealing too much of the surprise, suffice it to say that the stage was utilized beautifully and transitioned between solid ground and “muddy waters” seamlessly.
The supporting cast of this production supported and enhanced the performance of the show in ways that are seldom seen. The boys, referenced in the song by the same name, were exciting and rowdy, exactly as a group of young teens would be expected to act in their spare time away from school. The young ladies of the cast performed just as beautifully, with special mention for the Wilkes sisters, (Belnap, Ellora Lattin, and Jenessa Bowen) who portrayed their roles naturally, and combined their forces for a chill-inducing rendition of “You Oughta Be Here With Me,” mourning the passing of their father. The slapstick of The King (David W. Stensrud) and The Duke (Chandler Bishop) was entertaining and well timed throughout. Hale has done it again, combining talent and resources to make a show worthy of the time and money to attend.