Let me also say right up front that this is the first bad musical I've ever seen put on the boards of the estimable Stages theater in Kirkwood. I didn't know they had it in them. Mr. Miller's songs range from the predictable to the very predictable, and the first genuine, audible laugh in the book by William Hauptman doesn't come till 35 minutes into the performance.
Credit for that rare, heartfelt chuckle goes to Ken Robinson as Jim the runaway slave. He is a sterling model of authenticity throughout, but even he gets shot down eventually by Mr. Miller's unimaginative score: yes, Big River's accounts of the terrible hardships of slave life are the heart and soul of the play, but after several songs and scenes of slaves' suffering, Mr. Robinson is forced to hammer home just one more ballad on the subject from behind bars. And, somehow, that final, gratuitous yearning for liberty manages to cheapen the whole concept of abolition, thanks to the unbridled excess of the composer. Perhaps if just one of the previous slave songs had been cut, then "Free at Last" wouldn't be so deeply annoying. I mean, how many times did they sing "Old Man River" in Show Boat? Twice?
The most celebrated figures in the story, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, are played (unconvincingly, for the first two hours) by Adam Shonkwiler and Justin Bowen, two actors who have been very badly served by director Michael Hamilton. Mr. Shonkwiler, as Huck, has a big tousled blond wig and eyebrows that would scare Joan Crawford; and from a distance he looks like a cross-eyed goober. Somehow, both he and Mr. Bowen have been persuaded to put forward weirdly effervescent characters, like Dainty June, perhaps, in Gypsy. In fact, it is not until well after two hours have gone by that the audience finally warms to this Huck Finn, thanks to Mr. Shonkwiler's fine, dramatic reprise of the song, "Waiting for the Light to Shine." Every wan, dutiful smattering of applause until then should have told Director Hamilton to de-stylize, or tone down both young men during previews. Two and a half hours is an awfully long time to spend with such clanging phonies.
The supporting cast is allowed to be uniformly excellent, however, in all their multiple roles. John Flack seems to pop up in every other scene as a totally different character. Richard Pruitt, Zoe Vonder Haar and Lynn Humphrey, likewise, do yeoman-like service throughout (Mr. Pruitt, as Huck's father, paints a withering portrait of what we now call "Tea Party" members, in his song "The Gov'ment"). Darrel Blackburn and David Schmittou are good as a pair of con-men, but don't always get much to work with, in the mostly uninspired script. Leah Berry pumps some real heart into her role (and the play) as a mourning daughter in act two, and Lisa M. Ramey, Kelsie Johnson and Borris York are touching as Southern blacks in Arkansas. And the admirable Ben Nordstrom (a real-life husband and father) is believable throughout, as various silly kids. How odd, then, that the two young men playing Mark Twain's great anti-heroes should be directed to overshoot their required charm and credibility at nearly every turn.
The irony of Big River, of course, is that Huckleberry Finn escapes his matronly guardians (in St. Petersburg, MO) because he can't stand their attempts to turn him into a good, churchgoing young man. And it is that same guilt-wielding pressure that presumably drags people to come and watch a musical based on one of America's most celebrated novels in the first place, and get some literary-religion along the way. I, myself, was nearly inspired to sneak out at intermission and board a raft to some brighter adventure, as well. But then, what kind of critic would I be?
Through June 27, 2010 at the Robert G. Reim Theatre at the south end of the Kirkwood Recreation Center, 111 So. Geyer. For information call (314) 821-2407 or visit them online at www.stagesstlouis.org.
Cast in Act One:
Cast in Act Two:
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association
Photo by Whitney Curtis