OREM — The story of Huckleberry Finn, as written by Mark Twain, is a tale of fun and adventure for a young boy with nothing to lose. The musical Big River, with book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller is a telling of that story with some song and dance thrown in. The story follows young Huck as he weaves the tale of his time running away from the widow Douglas and Miss Watson, and his adventures on the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim. They encounter danger and crime, storms and fun. The tale has a little something for everybody.
The SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre presents this production of Big River directed by Jerry Elison. According to the artistic director of the theatre company, the intent was to provide fun and culture to the surrounding areas and put on a show to be enjoyed by the same people that created it, the community. As a fan of community theatre on many levels, I can say that this objective was achieved. The range of actors and actresses gracing the stage was wide and captivating. It is notable that the director and production crew were eager to include as many people in the show as possible, in ranging ages, skin tones, and walks of life. Reading through the biographies in the playbill, it was clear that the only thing that this plethora of people had in common was their love for the theatre, drawing them all to this stage.
Throughout the performance, there were several moments that would have fallen flat if not for the dedicated performances of the ensemble members. Any cast of 67 members relies heavily on each other to make the performance great. Most cast members could be found at one time or another moving set pieces or setting the scene with props and dressings. Their presence and choral harmonies throughout were noticed and appreciated.
As the show progressed, it became clear that the setting of the story was going to change numerous times, but all of the settings on stage appeared permanent. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the cast came out and changed the settings easily and often. Credit goes to scenic designers Teri Griffin and Kurt Elison, and the team of carpenters that brought their scenic vision to life. Without giving away the magic of the night, it was impressive to see how this team made “muddy waters” flow before our eyes.
Much of the story telling element is dependent on a strong cast. This company had many impressive supporting actors who helped bring this tale to life. Special mention goes to Logan Beaux and Ryan Knowlton, playing the roles of Duke and King respectively, who kept a cartoonishly large character throughout the entire production, drawing many laughs from the audience. Tom Sawyer, portrayed by Bradly Maclean, was a fun and rambunctious rendition of a classic character known for his love of trouble. Maclean played the character with boyish charm, tickling me with his penchant for making the simple things in life a little more complicated.
Jonathan Gustavson played Jim with experience and talent, making the character seem wise beyond his years. His voice was pure and mostly consistent, only wavering a few times when notes went beyond the actor’s range. Notably Gustavson played Jim with an appropriate dialect for a man of color in that time and condition, but failed to pull that same dialect into his singing voice, making a slight disconnect between the two modes.
Huck Finn, the play’s storyteller and troublemaker extraordinaire, was played by the young and talented Zack Elzey. Elzey was a delight on the stage, and wove a story adeptly. As he told the story I have heard many times, I found myself drawn to details that his style and inflection emphasized. Elzey’s voice was noticeably that of a young boy, even going so far as to sound prepubescent at times, adding a lovely charm. His laughter and fun were matched by his fear and wonder at the things he didn’t understand. Elzey performed well, though Huck Finn has several opportunities for depth and development in the play. But it felt as though several of those moments were glossed over to go right back to the fun of the carefree young man. Whether the choice to gloss over the depth of the character was made by the director or Elzey is unclear, but was a missed opportunity in either instance.
The cast and crew of Big River at the SCERA Shell have certainly dedicated much time and passion to creating a show that will bring big laughs and a fun night for audience members. Go see Big River for a night of guaranteed fun.
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