BWW Reviews: Hale Orem's BIG RIVER Is Expertly Staged, Highly Entertaining and Uplifting
It happens all too rarely, but at times you just want to say, "Go see this show. I'm sure you'll enjoy it." With Hale Center Theater Orem's current production, I just want to say, "Go see 'Big River.' I'm sure you'll enjoy it."
All the elements come together to make HCTO's "Big River" a highly entertaining, and ultimately uplifting, musical theater production.
Let's start with the source material: playwright William Hauptman's adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (and stop to note that Ernest Hemingway acknowledged that "all modern American literature" comes from Twain's timeless novel). While the script eliminates Twain's sarcasm and irony, the whimsy and charm of the characters are strengthened to create highly accessible, enjoyable theater.
The infectious score was written by Nashville singer/songwriter Roger Miller, whose quirky "King of the Road" and "Dang Me" will be fondly remembered by those of a certain age, while younger audiences know the lively songs he wrote and performed for Disney's "Robin Hood." Miller's "Big River" bluegrass and country compositions include amusing novelty, rousing ballads and chorals, and spirited hymns. And there just ain't a single clunker.
There are reasons aplenty the original production was honored with seven Tony Awards in nearly all the top categories.
HCTO's production is directed by the ever-inventive Christopher Clark, and his skills are evident, beginning with the show's conception and continuing to each defining detail of the show's success. He perfectly utilizes HCTO's in-the-round stage to envelop the audience, bringing surprises from each section of the theater.
Clark's vision for this staging includes live music, an unfortunately too-rare part of area musical productions. Each cast member plays at least one instrument, with Justin Bills on keyboard and onstage as musical director. But the actors-musicians don't always perform together, but are woven throughout the show, and this creates a wonderful musical experience.
Bills does a splendid job with his singers-musicians, and is strongly supported by Lisa Nicole Thurman on fiddle, Melanie McKay Cartwright on second piano, Bryan Matthew Hague on lead guitar (at this reviewed performance), and Ben Parkes on bass guitar. Other instruments heard on occasions include accordion, clarinet and drums, but not to exclude the triangle and tambourine. My only wish would be to perhaps include banjo and harmonica.
And then there are the expert performances. The company is equally adept at acting, comedy, singing, and musicianship. Andrew Robertson is bright-eyed, energized and full of rakish boyhood charisma as Huck. He has a pleasant and light singing voice perhaps not entirely equipped to handle the solo ballads, but his eager-to-please demeanor is winning. His acting skills are matched in the performance of Conlon Bonner as Jim. We'll ignore that Bonner is too young to play the part, because he easily slips into the role and his vocals are rich and powerful.
Other standout performances include Daniel Fenton Anderson as Pap (a comic delight in "Guv'ment"), Cecily Ellis-Bills as Widow Douglas (sharing "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?" with Hanna Gassaway as Miss Watson), and Jacob Theo Squire as the Duke (superb in "The Royal Nonesuch"). Squire is hilarious in Twain's grand "To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin" Shakespeareish soliloquy.
But hang on to your hats and glasses when the beautiful Mackenzie Seiler belts out "How Blest We Are" and "Free at Last" (with Bonner). She's a vibrant powerhouse singer but also brilliantly emotive.
There are two heartfelt scenes that are enacted for full emotional impact: Robertson and Bonner's "River in the Rain" and "Worlds Apart" duets. The musical is not about the river-floating adventures of Huck and Jim. It's about what they learn from each other. And the audience benefits from their enlightening journey. HCTO navigates "Big River" into your soul.