BWW Reviews: Slow Burn's BIG RIVER is A Joyous Musical Ride
An absolute of American stories, the misadventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, came to life onstage in 1985 with the musical adaptation, Big River. Long before Slow Burn came to fruition, a young Patrick Fitzwater sat in the audience for this American musical, starting him on his long path to current successes. Everything eventually comes full circle, and Fitzwater has finally gotten his chance to re-gift Big River to audiences at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, a production dazzling in its music and performances, showcasing a wild range of talents that give this American musical the most American feel a show could hope for.
Fitzwater highlights not primarily the classic Twain tale of Huckleberry and Jim, but focuses his energy on the beautiful Roger Miller score. His cast is varied, some returning Slow Burn performers with new faces taking the leads- all work well with his long time musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman, to present the score that captivated him so many years ago. The Southern drawls and gritty feel from each actor meshes into cascading musical numbers, transforming South Florida into the Southern Antebellum with hints of twang, soul, gospel, and folk.
Ricky Cona, a newcomer to the Slow Burn family, plays Twain's Huckleberry Finn, taking the charm and boyish delight of Twain to his stunning country voice that pierces into your heart. He forms tangible relationships between each of the cast, from his old buddy Tom Sawyer, his loyal Jim, or the budding romance explored in Arkansas. Cona gives audiences the narration, vocal brilliance, and the heart that makes his Finn weather the storm of Big River.
Around him are the colorful, and classic, cast that surrounds Finn; from Brian Maurice Kinnard's lovable Jim to each member of Sawyer's gang, the rotating members of Fitzwater's cast are unforgettable. Kinnard's Jim embodies frustration, loyalty, and purity in the treacherous world of the slavery south. His hearty belt, and soulful baritone, work with Cona to make songs such as 'Muddy Water' and 'River In the Rain' some of the musicals most engaging numbers.
On the other hand, the cruelest traits are delivered in Troy J. Stanley's Pap Finn, Matthew Korinko's 'King', and Victor Souffrant's 'Duke'. Stanley is the vile drunkard most will remember from Twain's book, the leeching father, who somehow delivers the show's funniest number, 'Guv'ment', with bombacious and boisterous character.
The duo of Korinko and Souffrant are a gem to hate, more fraudulent Laurel and Hardy than Abbott and Costello. Souffrant's over-the-top Shakespeare soliloquy is a riot, and their comedy through the second act's scam is side splitting. Both offer phenomenal voices that Slow Burn regulars will recognize, but are given criminally short time to showcase them, especially with the energy Souffrant brings to 'The Royal Nonesuch'.
There's light even in Fitzwater's smaller roles, such as David Matthew Klein's conniving and affable Tom Sawyer, who gives a dangerous thrill to the top of act one and rounding out of the second. Klein and Cona have chemistry that you can feel, the true bond of America's most celebrated friendship, and give boundless fun in their 'The Boys'. Leah Sessa also shines, both in her small act one appearance, and her crucial Mary Jane Wilkes in the second. She brings grief back to Cona, and Fitzwater's show, with an emotional center and depth at the surrounding events, a real empathy. Sessa's gorgeous belt returns, blending with Cona and Kinnard in 'Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go' in a chilling fashion.
The twenty person cast each finds time to shine vocally, throwing dozens of voices and musical motifs into Fitzwater's overflowing production. Cameron Jordan is hilarious, catchy in his 'Arkansas'; Ann Marie Olson and Erin Pittleman hold the stage in the opening number, 'Do Ya Wanna Go To Heaven?'; Andre Russell, Elijah Word, and Shonda L. Thurman all wind around Cona and Kinnard to hone 'Waitin' For the Light To Shine (Reprise)'. And, all on her own, Kendra Williams brings the audience to church in her 'How Blest We Are', a hauntingly beautiful number that she delivers with the pain and soul many will never see on a stage.
The talent Fitzwater puts on the stage is always reined in and guided by Schvartzman and his powerful pit, who deserve special mention for their magic in Big River. Along with Schvartzman's own keyboards, he employs Rupert Ziawinski on bass, harmonica, and Jew's Harp to give a wonderful southern twang to most numbers, along with Raisa Ilyutovich's violin and Jesus Mato's trumpet. The pit is rounded out with Guillermo Gonzalez's guitars and Roy Fantel's drums, a small group that fill the space with music that cascades over the soul like the Mississippi itself. The ride audiences will remember as they step out is Schvartzman's musical journeys, his unforgettable musical direction, and the way he perfects Miller's score.
As to be expected, water is wet, Sean McClelland provides phenomenal sets. His new piece centers around a wooden sun, juxtaposed with picket fence-esque boards, that spread through the design of the entire set, above and around each scene to mix the natural with the idealistic adventure. His lighting counterpart, Rebecca Montero, delivers a wide range of beautiful washes and mixes to illustrate the rising and setting sun, the river, storms, and more to push audiences onto the raft with Cona and Kinnard. Rick Pena's costumes are equally delightful, a perfect combination of crisp and dirty, the Antebellum era portrayed with love, yet quality.
Trying to find ways to reinvigorate controversial and dated characters, who have been permanently entered in the American canon, would be difficult for the best director- when the best director also has personal investment in it, the weight becomes that of Atlas. Fitzwater bears it well, with strong support from the cast and team to share Big River's burden, giving South Florida a new 'Adventure of Huckleberry Finn' that will delight and deliver. Big River is a musical amusement that is so finely tuned in Fitzwater's hands that it feels as though nobody else could have found the show's golden soul, its musical foundations, or set this story free on the river.
Big River plays March 16th-April 2nd at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
Photo credits: Jim Hall.