Big River opened on Broadway on April 25, 1985 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where it ran for 1,005 performances. The cast featured René Auberjonois as The Duke and John Goodman as Pap Finn. The charming retelling of the tale of Huck Finn, set to music in the bluegrass and country styles in keeping with the setting of the novel, made the show a huge success. It received six Tony Awards and five Drama Desk Awards. The 2003 revival opened on Broadway on July 24, 2003 at the American Airlines Theatre, where it ran for 67 performances. The revival received three Drama Desk Award Nominations and won one Tony Award.
This enjoyable production of Big River at the Lake Worth Playhouse is surprisingly well done. They have assembled the strongest ensemble of singers yet heard on their stage. From the very first company number, "Do Ya Wanna Go To Heaven?", it is clear that the singing and staging is full out, and the ensemble feels like every bit of what an ensemble should be.
Annette G. Gray is a perfect Widow Douglas. Mark Enger is good as Pap, but could go further with making the character threatening. Calvin Bankert shows promising talent as the young Tom Sawyer. The part of Mary Jane seems tailor made for Kaitrin Lynch. It is doubtful that anyone could sing "You Oughta Be Here With Me" more beautifully and heart-felt.
Andy Christler is smug and smarmy as The Duke. He is well paired with a dirty and devious Kevin Kelly as The King. A few ensemble members stand out in cameos, such as Robert Martes who comfortably slips in and out of accents while playing different characters.
Gregory Johnson is sensational as Jim. He is the right man for this role, and could easily step into any production of Big River and know he is an asset. His mannerisms and singing are both strong and tender where they need to be, and his passionate singing of "Free At Last" actually made some of the audience (including me) teary eyed.
Conor Walton as Huckleberry Finn is undeniably talented and truly has a great singing voice that will take him far. This is not the role for him, however, as he gives us a Huckleberry that is alarmingly fey. He also adopts a mannerism that is hugely distracting. Perhaps in an attempt to appear younger (though he looks quite young), he endlessly looks about vacantly, while he twists the end of his shirt-tail, his suspenders, and his own fingers, as if in the style of a Benny Hill skit. Even with this, Big River is the best thing to come across Lake Worth Playhouse' stage since I have attended. What a great start to their new season.
Big River appeared at the Lake Worth Playhouse October 24th - November 9th, 2008. The theatre is located at 713 Lake Ave. in Lake Worth, FL. The Lake Worth Playhouse is a Resident Community Playhouse in it's 55th Season. Performance times are Thursdays, Fridays at 8:00 p.m. Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.. For tickets and/or more information about the theatre and its programs, you may contact them by phone at 561-586-6410 or online at www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.