BWW Reviews: Village Theatre's BIG RIVER Has Some Big Talent But Also An Identity Crisis
At the top of the show for Village Theatre's production of "Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" we are greeted with a quote from Mark Twain and the original book. "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." And while clever, showing that quote at the top of the show doesn't excuse the fact that there is little through line or story arc to this production. There's a ton of talent performing throughout the evening but at times they felt like they were in different shows.
Adapted from Twain's novel with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, we are literally following "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". Huck has his share of the money he and Tom Sawyer got from Injun Joe and now is under the guardianship of the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson. But Huck still longs for adventure and so when his Pap comes back and insists Huck live with him (so he can get his hands on Huck's money), Huck fakes his own murder and sets off to explore the world down the river. While hiding out he comes across Jim, Miss Watson's escaped slave whom he helps escape with him down the river and the adventures begin.
Now while the book itself says not to look for a plot (or you'll be shot), as a musical theater piece I prefer my shows to have at least some kind of through line or arc. And the big problem with the show itself is that it lacks that and really is just a series of adventures. And while some may say that the arc of the show is Huck's maturity upon seeing more of the world, the growth of the character in this production seemed to be lacking. Furthermore, director Steve Tompkins seems to have two different shows going on. There was the relationship between Jim and Huck and their attempt to escape the persecution of slavery and there was the buffoonery of all those around. And while the former lent an air of realism and heart to the piece the latter continued to burst through that heart and take the show into the realm of vaudeville.
But like I said there are some stunning performances in the show. Greg McCormick Allen and Rich Gray as The Duke and The King, the two con men who cause nothing but trouble for Huck and Jim, are hilarious and fun to watch but unfortunately fell into the more vaudevillian arena of the show. They had a few sincere moments but I would have liked more. Taylor Niemeyer, Jessica Low and Lindsey Larson turn in a beautiful rendition of "You Oughta Be Here With Me" but it just feels so tacked on to the story. On the other hand some of the most real and honest moments of the show came from the solos of Stacie Pinkney Calkins and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako as slaves trapped in a world with no regard for them.
But of course the most singular performances came from Randy Scholz and Rodney Hicks as the wandering Huck and Jim. And it was this show I wanted to see more of, "The Huck and Jim Show" as the two of them manage to infuse some semblance of a story into a script lacking one. Scholz manages the innocence and impish likability of Huck and has a flawless voice but I would have liked more growth from him as the show went on. Hicks is just plain sublime from beginning to end. His intensity seems to know no end and his voice could bring you to tears. And his rendition of "Free At Last", while inherently a song with not much going on for it, had a growth and arc all its own.
So a good production with some amazing talent but lacking in direction and cohesiveness. But then they did warn us of the lack of a plot right at the get go, so I guess I'll just have to be shot for wanting more.
"Big River" performs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through October 21st and then moves to their Everett location running October 26th through November 18th. For tickets or information contact the Village box office in Issaquah at 425-392-2202 or in Everett at 425-257-8600 or visit them online at www.villagetheatre.org.
Photo credit: Jay Koh