BWW Reviews: Stages St.Louis Does Terrific Work with Their Production of BIG RIVER 5/28-6/27


The was my first time seeing Big River, and I must confess to some misgivings I harbored concerning William Hauptman's adaptation of Mark Twain's classic tale, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The original is a work of great American literature, filled with dialogue that's now considered controversial, but which was pitch perfect and true to its characters and its time. Happily, Hauptman and composer/lyricist Roger Miller have crafted a wonderful version that manages to capture the flavor and feel of the times, while remaining fairly faithful to its source material. Stage St. Louis has put together a production that's a feast for the eyes and ears, conjuring up the muddy Mississippi on stage with considerable technical wizardry, while a talented cast works its own magic under Michael Hamilton's expert direction.

The story takes place after the events that occurred in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but unlike his buddy Tom, Huck hasn't adjusted to the normal routines of life, including attending school on a regular basis. He's a restless spirit, and when his drunken pappy comes back to claim him, and the money he and Tom discovered, he decides to hit the road, or in this case, the water. After staging his own demise, he runs into Jim, a runaway slave who worked for the ladies who took Huck into their home. Huck decides to aid Jim in his attempt to reunite his family, all of whom have been sold into slavery. They meet up with a couple of charlatans in the person of the King and the Duke, and the foursome head down the Mississippi. Along the way, Huck learns the true meaning and value of friendship, although he continues to resist any attempts to civilize him.

Adam Shonkwiler does strong work as Huck, bringing a nice sense of depth to his characterization. He's well matched with Ken Robinson, who brings a quiet power and dignity to his role as Jim. They're especially good on the transcendent number "River in the Rain", as well as "Worlds Apart", which finds Huck apologizing for some insensitive behavior towards Jim. Their stories are at the core of this tale, and both make you care about their fates.

Standouts among a large and talented supporting cast include: Darrel Blackburn and David Schmittou as the King and the Duke, respectively; Richard Pruitt as Huck's dangerously inebriated father; Justin Bowen as Tom Sawyer; Zoe Vonder Haar as Miss Watson; and Leah Berry as Mary Jane Wilkes.

Director Michael Hamilton does an excellent job staging this show. The pace is brisk, and the action and the actors are clear and focused throughout. He's greatly aided by the splendidly rustic scenic design of James Wolk, Lisa Campbell Albert's music direction, and Matthew McCarthy's sharp lighting scheme. The lively choreography by Dana Lewis also adds a bit of sparkle, and neatly fills the space with movement. Lou Bird's costumes help to create the right atmosphere and feel, and Stuart Elmore's orchestral design nicely recreates all the acoustic instruments that populate the score.

Stages St. Louis' terrific production of Big River continues through June 27, 2010 at the Robert Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, MO.

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From This Author Chris Gibson

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