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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Willows Theatre Presenting A Rousing Production Of Roger Miller’s Big River

Also see Richard's review of Too Many Girls

The Willows Theatre Company is closing their 2002 season with the holiday revival of Roger Miller’s 1985 Tony Award winning musical Big River with book by William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The musical opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985, and it ran an amazing 1005 performances. I saw the musical several weeks after it opened with Daniel H. Jenkins playing Huck and Ron Richardson as runaway slave Jim. René Auberjonois was featured as The Duke. I found the musical entertaining, something that would appeal to parents and children alike. The Roger Miller score is a combination of upbeat, foot stomping and gospel style songs.

The musical faithfully follows Mark Twain’s story of the homeless and uneducated Huckleberry Finn (Nick Kealy) and his trusted sidekick Tom Sawyer (Jon Lutz). Most of the production follows the adventures of Huck and runaway slave Jim (James Monroe Ingelart) after Huck escapes from his alcoholic father (Paul Plain). Huck and Jim have a series of escapades while rafting up the Mississippi, each escaping from his former life. They meet con artists who pose as The King and The Duke (Jesse Caldwell and Jeff Lowe), a mysterious strange woman (Sara Hauter), a lovely girl mourning the recent death of her father (Jen MacDearman), and a well meaning but misguided Arkansas farmer and his wife (Ron Pickett and Deborah L. Black). All of this in a musical that runs well over 2-1/2 hours. The second act runs a mite too long with several anticlimaxes.

The Willows production, under the direction of Andrew F. Holtz, is a highly professional one, with up-tempo performances and excellent vocal and choreographic work. The chorus gives the feeling of an old-fashioned hoedown and a style reminiscent of Music Man. Nick Kealy is superb as the all American Huck. He has an appealing stage presence with a mischievous look on his face. Kealy has a solid voice with a full range that should take him far. James Monroe Iglehart is outstanding as Jim, the runaway slave. He makes the agony of slavery palpable and his scene about never seeing his children again is very moving. His character is filled with dignity and honesty. Iglehart's big wonderful baritone voice rings out for “Muddy Waters” and it almost stops the show. The harmonizing of Iglehart's baritone and Kealy’s tenor on “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain” and “Worlds Apart” is beautifully done.

Jon Lutz is great as the boastful Tom Sawyer. Jesse Caldwell and Jeff Lowe are wonderfully funny as the King and the Duke. Their duet, “The Royal Nonesuch,” is hilarious with the whole cast joining in on the rousing song. One of the funniest highlights of the show is scene stealer Ron Pickett as a fool singing “Arkansas”. This is the epitome of a “hillbilly” song you could have heard at the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early days of country western music. It is really a hoot. Jen McDearman as Mary Jane has a pleasurable voice, especially in the song “Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go.” Paul Plain gives a fine performance as Huck’s drunken pa and he give a standout rendition of the political science song “Guv’ment” that brings down the house.

Set designer Peter Crompton has made the stage look like something that the gold rush miners would have seen in the “opera houses” in the Sonora hills of California. Much of the action takes place on a moving raft that looks hard to move. Big River does take some time traveling down the Mississippi, but the company is pretty good as traveling companions. It is not a classic Broadway musical but it is fun for the entire family this Christmas season.

Big River runs through December 31 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Willows Shopping Center, Concord, California. Tickets can be obtained by calling 925-798-1300 or visiting www.willowstheatre.com.

The Willows Theatre will open their 2003 season with Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It with You on January 27, 2003.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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