Big River Overflows with Artistry at Village Theatre
The episodic plot picks up where Twain's "Adventures of Tom Sawyer" concluded, with the shift in protagonist from Tom to his more raffish companion Huck Finn. Huck, unhappily residing with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson, is stalked by his nefarious Pappy for the money from Injun Joe's treasure in the earlier tale and, along with Miss Watson's escaped slave Jim, sets out on a raft on the Mississippi where the pair encounter con-men and dangers before the end of their journey. Hauptman's book and Miller's first song "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?" start the show out at a snail's pace and it's not until two are on the run that the show really takes off properly. Miller wrote well for the characters (Pap's "Guv'ment", Tom and Huck's "We Are the Boys", and the showstopping "Muddy Water") but the popular country western songwriter had little clue how to move the story along properly. This puts the burden on the cast to put the show across, and the crew at Village is more than up to the task.
Randy Scholz is a natural for the role of Huck Finnlikable, energetic, and strong-voiced. And he is matched by the masterful Rodney Hicks (a Broadway veteran now living in the Pacific Northwest) as Jim. Hicks plays the role with passion and dignity and sings like a dream. When the two actors pair on the wistful "River in the Rain" they strike pure musical theatre gold. As the nefarious and no-good faux Duke and King respectively, veteran Seattle funnymen Greg McCormick Allen and Richard Gray are tremendous comic assets and sock across their featured numbers ("When the Sun Goes Down in the South" and "Royal Nonesuch) with zeal. John David Scott is a suitably gawky Tom Sawyer, David Anthony Lewis a comically menacing Pap, and Taylor Niemeyer a sweet yet hearty Mary Jane, delivering her plaintive "You Oughta Be Here with Me" with sweet poignance. Cheryl Massey Peters and Jayne Muirhead bring their redoubtable character actress skills to the small roles of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, while Stacie Pinkney Calkins and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako as the slaves Alice and her daughter melt us with their lovely voices. Daniel Cruz's choreography is snappy, Tim Symons' musical direction both of the cast and the small instrumental ensemble is strong and includes a banjo strummin' Mark Twain in the personage of veteran actor John Patrick Lowrie.
Scott Fyfe's river-dominated sets are a joy to behold and truly make us feel like we are out on the Mississippi, and Tom Sturge's lighting design is notably lovely. Melanie Taylor Burgess has done well costuming the large cast in attractive period garb, and Brent Warwick's solid sound design ensures none of Miller's folksy and clever lyrics are shortchanged. All told, director Tomkins and company deserve solid applause for delivering a Big River that should appeal to the whole family.
Big River runs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through October 21st and then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center, running October 26th through November 18th. For tickets or information contact the Village box office in Issaquah at 425-392-2202 or in Everett at 425-257-8600 or visit them online at www.villagetheatre.org.