BWW Reviews: Book Passage on Big-hearted 'Big River'
Adapted from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller, Book by William Hauptman, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Jonathan Goldberg; Choreographer, Rachel Bertone; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Rafael Jaen; Lighting Design, Scott Clyve; Projection Design, Seághan McKay; Production Stage Manager, Robin Grady; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell
CAST: Jordan Ahnquist, Leigh Barrett, Peter A. Carey, John Costa, Marchant Davis, Zachary Eisenstat, Paul D. Farwell, De'Lon Grant, Kevin C. Groppe, Maureen Keiller, Nicholas Lee, Joseph Marrella, Nellanna, Daniel Plimpton, Alycia Sacco, Kami Rushell Smith, Marlon Smith-Jones, Erica Spyres, Phil Tayler, J.T. Turner, Chelsea Williams
Spiro Veloudos is a large man who has chosen, of late, to let his Lyric Stage Company productions reflect the magnitude of his artistic appetite. Last year, he directed the massive undertaking that was Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which received critical, as well as audience, acclaim and took home five IRNE awards. The Producing Artistic Director is making a big splash in this new season with the 1985 Tony Award-winning Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, featuring twenty-one Boston actors and an eight-piece orchestra conducted by Music Director Jonathan Goldberg.
Like plying the mighty Mississippi on a raft, it takes strength, wits, daring, and more than a little bit of luck to successfully pull off a mission of this complexity, but Veloudos has a great cast and crew supporting him. The designers along for the ride are Janie E. Howland (set), Rafael Jaen (costume), Scott Clyve (lighting), and Seághan McKay (projection). Howland and McKay combine their talents to magically create the illusion of the raft in motion on the river on the Lyric's compact stage, adding an unexpected authenticity to the journey of Huck and his traveling companion Jim, the runaway slave.
In the annals of American literature, Mark Twain plays second fiddle to few; still, the humor and spirit of his novel are richly augmented by the music and lyrics of Roger Miller, the '60's "King of the Road," whose folksy sensibility blends effortlessly with Twain's story. Big River is both story and character driven, and book writer William Hauptman and Miller have made sure that the adaptation serves to flesh out these familiar folks with an emphasis on their inner journeys. The score opens with the full company singing "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven," laying the foundation for the quandaries that follow about right and wrong, sin and forgiveness.
Jordan Ahnquist (Huck) and De'Lon Grant (Jim) are a well-matched pair as the clever boy running away from women who want to civilize him and the drunken father who wants to beat him, and the savvy slave trying to own himself and his family. As much as they are escaping, both are running toward something - freedom, adventure, and the fulfillment of a dream. Huck is the personification of the author (who wrote in Life on the Mississippi that it was his ambition to be a steamboatman [sic]) and represents the change that a disappointed Twain hoped to effect in the world after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Ahnquist both narrates and acts out Huck's stories, infusing them with an engaging mix of wonder and triumph. His boyish appearance affords him some credibility, but one recalls that Finn, as written, was a young teenager. Grant plays Jim with a mature bearing that contrasts with Ahnquist's exuberance to underscore the difference in their age and status. However, their chemistry is at its best when the two men are joined in purpose and song in "Muddy Water" and "River in the Rain." Huck Finn would be unknown to the world if not for his inclusion in Twain's earlier work, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Turnabout is fair play and Tom figures prominently in some of these escapades. Phil Tayler exudes the joy of being a boy with an overactive imagination and charms us even when his Tom occasionally overacts. And, speaking of overacting, in a Pinocchio-like turn of events, Huck falls under the tutelage of a pair of grifters played to the hilt by J. T. Turner (The King) and Peter A. Carey (The Duke). At first they appear to be stock ridiculous caricatures, but in the hands of these fine actors, The King hardens into a mean-spirited crook and The Duke develops a conscience and garners a small measure of sympathy.
Many in the cast make their mark in brief appearances as one particular character even as they play multiple roles. As Huck's ne'er-do-well father Pap Finn, Paul D. Farwell is both frightening and pitiful in turn as he shamelessly tries to latch onto his son's fortune, and growls his way through "Guv'ment," a song that resonates in today's economy. Maureen Keiller (Widow Douglas) and Leigh Barrett (Miss Watson, Jim's owner) fit the bill as good God-fearing women attempting to domesticate Huck. A quartet of captured runaway slaves chained together in a row sings a haunting dirge, led by Kami Rushell Smith, with Marchant Davis, Nellanna, and Marlon Smith-Jones. In a lighter moment, Nicholas Lee's Young Fool elicits lots of chortles when he fiddles around with a novelty song about "Arkansas." Alycia Sacco, who impressed as Harpo Marx in last spring's Animal Crackers, gets in touch with her masculine side again as the smallest member of Tom Sawyer's nefarious gang, and later shifts gears (and genders) as a corseted tart.
Jaen's costume designs go a long way to establish the period of the 1840's and to differentiate the characters in the numerous locales visited along the river. The women wear bonnets and long dresses that conserve their modesty. Men favor suspenders and knee-length coats, but young boys sport knee-pants and newsboy caps. Clyve's lighting effectively indicates day or night along the route, and provides theatrical verisimilitude for a sideshow performance by The Duke and The King. Choreographer Rachel Bertone masterfully stages their vaudevillian number, as well as a couple of energetic pieces for the full company.
Miller's country-pop style score is delightful, with Goldberg's complement of instruments including harmonicas, guitars, and violin in addition to the usual keyboard, reeds, brass, and drums. The vocal abilities in the ensemble are topnotch, but Grant is deserving of special mention for the full, rich timbre of his voice, as well as the power he brings to "Free at Last," when Jim finally attains his goal. It is made more noticeable in contrast to his closing duet with Huck, the sweetly harmonized bromantic reprise of "River in the Rain," when the two must part.
Big River is a show with a lot of heart and a lot of homespun humor, but do not be deceived. In the midst of all of the singing, dancing, and storytelling, just when you think that you're only there to be having a good time, it will dawn on you that there is a lesson in all of this levity. The amazing thing is that the lesson still needs to be taught more than 125 years after the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Fortunately, it is a great story and Veloudos and company will make it worth your while to book passage on the journey.
Photo credit: Timothy Dunn (Jordan Ahnquist, De'Lon Grant)