BWW Review: BIG RIVER at Hale Centre Theatre, The Great American Musical Shines in Gilbert
BIG RIVER deserves such a larger presence in our nation's Broadway Warhorse catalog. It's a meeting house of American art. Based on one of the first Great American Novels, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (the first UK best-seller written in an American vernacular), BIG RIVER is full of music styles that, while rooted all over the globe, were culled and mastered in America. Songwriter/lyricist Roger Miller, moves from blues to bluegrass, from vaudeville novelty to Southern gospel. And he ties them together with another homegrown art form, the Broadway musical comedy. Hale Centre Theatre's production, running through May 11th in Gilbert, AZ, is more confirmation that BIG RIVER is one of the Great American Musicals.
Director Tim Dietlein has assembled a twenty-one person cast deep with the talent needed for the particularly large number of featured roles. He's staged them effectively and when combined with the vocal arrangements of Music Director, Elizabeth Spenser, and the eye-pleasing, well-crafted choreography of Cambrian James, it makes for a gratifying evening of theatre.
Supporting cast highlights include performances by Tim Paul Fiscus and Matthew R. Harris as the King and the Duke. While both funny and spot-on in their depiction of these con-men, Mr. Harris' full-out demonstration of the scathing despair of a "tar and feathering" was impressive. Kudos to him and Mr. Dietlein for pushing hard on this scene. Savannah Alfred and Anna-lise Koyabe are moving in their roles as Alice and Alice's daughter respectively. Their singing is compelling and their acting is passionate. Tom Sawyer, wonderfully played by Allan Dewitt, is an audience favorite providing much needed comic relief towards the show's conclusion. Gary Caswell as Pap Finn excels in his furious, insolent, and inebriated scenes, but his sudden attempt at silly likability in his lone solo number, "Guv'ment" undercuts the other fine aspects of his performance. The song is capable of humor without going that route.
Robert Collins (as Jim) earns our favor quickly with the rousing "Muddy Water". He skillfully navigates Jim's many and different modes: comic buffoonery, true fear, bold defiance, and loving friendship. Nicholas Gunnel (as Huck) is an endearing performer. He's charming, smile-inducing, and connects with the audience in his narration. Yet, his Huck felt somewhat more optimistic and cheerful than the character Mr. Twain described in his book as "idle, lawless, vulgar, and bad". While he's entertaining on all fronts, it felt sometimes like we had two Tom Sawyers in the show. Tom and Huck, while best friends full of mutual admiration, are nevertheless foils and their differences are key to defining both characters.
Hale Centre Theatre has a long-standing policy of using prerecorded tracks in place of a live band. Displacing the cost of live musicians for a twenty-five performance run allows them to raise budget and quality (very successfully) in all other areas of production. Not to mention the real estate they save in their intimate, theatre-in-the-round space. But with the music so incredibly important to the artistic value of BIG RIVER, the use of tracks is one of the few disappointments. There are only a handful of shows that noticeably suffer from prerecorded accompaniment. BIG RIVER is among them.
Huck's journey is as relevant as ever. He lives and was raised in a Southern antebellum society that has taught him that helping Jim is immoral. He believes stealing Jim out of slavery will assure his damnation, but he does it anyway. He questions societal doctrine and sets the Great American example of self-determined morality. BIG RIVER, especially Hale's current production, makes Mr. Twain's story accessible and compact without diminishing its message.
BIG RIVER plays at Hale Centre Theatre through May 11th. Tickets are available at www.haletheatrearizona.com