The Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio proves that a little creativity, along with a strong cast, can be the difference between a moderately pleasing production and one that comes alive for an audience. The musical Big River has earned a reputation as an agreeable and fun show since it debuted just over twenty years ago. Even though it won seven Tony Awards in the very weak 1985 Broadway season, it hasn't really been noteworthy for much other than an ingenious restaging of the show with the integration of American Sign Language (ASL) by Deaf West Theatre a few years ago, which led to a New York revival and national tour. However, thanks to some imaginative direction and a talented and dedicated cast, Human Race's production shows off the musical's assets and minimizes its shortcomings in an entertaining showcase.
Big River is a musicalization of Mark Twain's novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The story follows young Huck in pre-Civil War America. Huck is torn between the choices of living a wild, responsibility-free life with his abusive drunken father versus holding to the strict expectations of the townsfolk who have taken him in. The young protagonist also has to deal with his confusion about what is right or wrong in the world. Huck stages his own death so he can seek adventures elsewhere, and he and runaway slave Jim board a raft down the Mississippi. There they find much conflict and great joy as they encounter a slew of unique characters and situations. They also learn a lot about friendship and themselves.
The book for Big River by William Hauptman has its strengths and weaknesses, as does the source material. The first act has a considerably stronger narrative than the second act, which tends to meander. Also, the main storytelling device used is narration, provided by Huck himself. We are too often told what happened rather than shown. However, there is a good deal of effectively written humor and relationship-building dialogue. The book flows quickly with lots of action and plenty of conflict. The themes of friendship and freedom (from slavery, abusive fathers, societal expectations) are universal. The story is a fun one, including lots of social and historical relevance, and a moral conscience.
The score by the late country songwriter Roger Miller too has its pros and cons. All of the songs contain catchy melodies that are a very good fit to the story. Miller's work includes some very effective spirituals ("The Crossing," "How Blest We Are," "Free At Last") and wonderful anthems and duets for Huck and Jim ("River In the Rain," "Muddy Water"). Huck's spirited "Waitin' For the Light To Shine" (where he longs to know his place in the world) and the plaintive trio "Leavin's Not The Only Way To Go" are also musical highlights. However, the lyrics at times are not up to level of the music, and very few songs really advance the plot forward. There are a number of comedic songs included as well, but they rarely land with the same punch as the more emotional tunes do. Still, the score is one that audiences will likely go home humming.
Director and Choreographer Joe Deer inventively uses his ensemble to enhance the stagecraft and theatrics in a myriad of ways, including using them as props and facilitators for some of the action. Mr. Deer's directorial choices provide a solid emotional foundation for the connections between the characters that develop, and his active stage movement makes the three-hour piece go by quicker than it might otherwise. The fact that the show is presented in a small theater with a thrust stage likewise helps to make the poignancy of the relationships have greater impact. Musical Director Gerald Rheault leads a spirited five piece band.
Broadway vet and Human Race regular Scott Hunt is endearing as Huck, providing the narration and dialogue with a suitably homespun delivery and singing the role with a sweet tenor voice. As the slave Jim, Horace E. Smith III sings with splendidly big and soulful vocals, and brings the needed dignity and determination to the role. The entire 17 member cast is to be commended for their constant energy, beautiful singing, and steady portrayals.
The set design by Dunsi Dai features wooden planks and props, and is highlighted by a curved painting of the winding Mississippi River that figures so prominently in the show. John Rensel's lighting enhances the mood effectively, and Carol Finley provides handsome, fun and period appropriate costumes.
Big River will likely never be considered one the better Best Musical Tony Award winners, but the source material and writing for this piece provide opportunities for an engaging and entertaining show. The Human Race Theatre Company proves this point with their current production which features some unique and ingenious ideas fully realized by its talented cast. Big River continues at The Loft Theatre in Dayton through December 23, 2006. Call (937) 228-3630 for tickets.