“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. By order of the author.” – Mark Twain
That quote is inside the program for Standing Room Only’s foot-tapping production of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s funny is the story does have a moral, plot, and a motive, but I guess Mr. Twain would prefer his audience just enjoy what happens rather than try to make sense of it; and enjoyable it is, especially in this Tony award-winning musical adaptation with songs by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman.
The time is 1844, and the place is the Deep South. It is before the Civil War, and slavery is still legal. Huck Finn fills us in on how he and Tom Sawyer now have money in the bank, and how he is just aching to get out on his own while living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Huck’s alcoholic and abusive father smells money and takes back custody of Huck. It isn’t long before Huck takes matters into his own hands, starting off on a series of adventures with Jim, a runaway slave, and encountering a team of con men (a “King” and a “Duke”) that get them into nothing but trouble. Through it all, Huck grows as a person and works to find a way back home while keeping Jim from being enslaved again.
Caleb Baker is a curious choice as Huck Finn; he appears to be easily twice the age of the character he is playing, and he underplays his part to a large extent. In some ways, this works just fine because there are many supporting actors who more than make their mark in the berth his performance leaves open. This relaxed approach to Huck also makes Mr. Baker’s strong renditions of “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (both duets with the sublime Brandon Buchanan) feel all the more significant when his voice and manner rise to the occasion of the moment.
Standouts in the supporting cast are the aforementioned Brandon Buchanan as Jim, the slave, bringing dignity and sweetness to a tricky part; Thor Collard playing a variety of slimy characters from Pap Finn to Silas with delicious aggression; Ryan Kopycinski as Ben Rogers and a part of the ensemble, comfortably as backwoods-ish as possible; Nyla Nyamweya as the daughter of a slave named Alice, performing an electrifying solo of “How Blest We Are”; and John Feather as the con man King and Judge Thatcher.
Dee Shepherd directs this show efficiently, maintaining a steady sprint that could easily be held back by large sets and too many props. Ms. Shepherd allows her actors to spread out and tell the story largely on their own with some well-placed sound effects, some interesting lighting choices (a raft that figures largely in the play has its perimeter defined by the lighting), and a truly excellent small band lead by music director Chipper Snow. The bluegrass-themed score by Roger Miller is adeptly performed with Jordan Shear on the violin, Ted Reich on the harmonica, Robert W. Loar on percussion and bass, and Josh Dillingham on guitar; each of these talented men earn a shout out. The Van Fleet Theatre can be tricky sound wise, but this is one production where the singing can be heard perfectly (save for two performers who shall go unnamed) even with the band playing off to the right.
Big River is more enjoyable in this small production by Standing Room Only than I remember from seeing the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s still an episodic show with perhaps one vignette too many, but this Big River is also surprisingly rousing in its crowd scenes, and I found myself humming songs that had not caught my attention from seeing the show previously. Even though Mr. Twain said there was no moral in this story, I beg to differ; seeing Huck Finn’s growth from seeing Jim as just a slave to a fully rounded person with the ability to feel and care “just like a white person” is still unfortunately relevant. We’ve come a long way socially, but these stories that illustrate the way it was less than two hundred years ago in this country are still very important to tell, especially as long as a malaise of inequality still hangs over this great country of ours. Go see Standing Room Only’s Big River for the music and the fun, but leave with the message.
*** 1/4 out of ****
Big River continues through to May 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/big-river1.html