Saturday, July 23, 2016

Floating Down the "Big River"

Big River -- Sharon Playhouse -- Thru July 31

Joseph Allen and Nicholas Ward. Photo by Randy O'Rourke

How do you respond to an impressively talented cast charged with bringing to life a mediocre musical? Well, I guess you just sit back and enjoy what’s there to be enjoyed. Yes, Big River won numerous Tonys when it opened on Broadway in 1985 (the competition was Grind, Leader of the Pack and Quilters, so…) and has had many revivals, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that it is a patchwork piece with a book by William Hauptman that is mostly monologue, based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and songs by Roger Miller that often do little to move the plot forward and sometimes seem to be inserted just for the hell of it. Up at the Sharon Playhouse, director John Simpkins has done what he can to make this three-wheeled wagon roll along as entertainingly as possible. The audience was appreciative on opening night, the cast was superb, and the social issues were out there for all to see and ponder.

Okay, as you traveled through the American education system you were probably introduced to Twain’s novel, much esteemed and often vilified for, among other things, its use of the “N” word (whether you actually read the novel remains to be seen). So, you know about Huck, a barely “civilized” lad, and Jim, a runaway slave, and their trip down the Mississippi River on a raft (the river being a metaphor for being free from civilization, while what awaits on the shore is human perfidy, racism and skullduggery). It’s essentially a coming of age story, with Huck opting to defy social mores and “go to Hell” to help Jim.

The novel was written in the first person – hence the monologue form used by Hauptman. Yes, Huck tells his story, but often what might be dramatized is simply described, which leads to the musical often floating into some backwaters. Then there are the songs. The rousing “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” utilizes the entire cast in the opening number, and it’s a real foot-stomper, backed by a nine-piece orchestra that sounds bigger than it is. It frames Huck’s dilemma: does he accept being “civilized” or revolt? All well and good, as are the wonderful “Royal Nonesuch” number, the haunting “River in the Rain” and the risible “Guv-ment,” all of which develop character and move the plot along, but then there are the throw-aways: “Hand for the Hog,” “Arkansas,” and the totally show-stopping (the phrase used in the pejorative sense) “You Oughta Be Here with Me.”

So, the musical is flawed, but the cast is excellent. Joseph Allen, as Huck, is sprightly and ingenuous, and tells his story with just the right amount of pluck. Playing against him, Nicholas Ward, with his marvelous bass voice, is a sensitive, world-wise Jim. Yes, he plays a slave, but the essence of the musical, and the novel, is that Huck comes to realize that Jim is not property to be bought or sold but a human being, a man, and Ward ably allows for this transformation in Huck’s thinking.

Doing double duty, Travis Mitchell plays Pap, Huck’s father, with just the right amount of inebriated evil (the cabin scene is both disturbing and frightening) and the King, the purported lost son of Louis XIV, a huckster in cahoots with the Duke, Thomas Cannizzaro, who nails the fractured Hamlet soliloquy. The two cavorting in “The Royal Nonesuch” is a delight. The agile Alex Dorf creates a believable Tom Sawyer, though he might pull back a bit on the “corn-pone” delivery of lines, and Carrie Lyn Brandon is delightful as the grieving Mary Jane Wilkes. All are supported by a talented cast that brings to life the story of Huck and Jim and their journey towards friendship and understanding.

The staging, by and large, captures the feel of the period, as does the costuming by Michelle Eden Humphrey. There is, however, one head-scratcher, and that’s the use by scenic designer Josh Smith of trees (really branches) on rolling platforms to signify the land bordering the Mississippi. Each is rolled about by a cast member and is awkwardly worked into several scenes, more a distraction than anything else…and totally unnecessary. One might also have expected some projections to enhance the feel of the raft floating down the river, but perhaps it just wasn’t in the budget.

All in all, Big River is a case of a cast overcoming the limitations of the material it has to work with to deliver an enjoyable if not gripping evening of musical theater. If you don’t question some of the decisions made – like dance hall girls in full regalia suddenly appearing in a backwater Arkansas town -- and don’t mind that many of the songs, as tuneful as they are, simply don’t make much sense -- then you’ll have a good time in the lovely northwest corner of Connecticut.

Big River runs through July 31. For tickets call (860) 364-7469 (ext. 201 in the summer/ext. 100 in the winter) or go to

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