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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Big River
Mesa Encore Theatre

Also see Gil's review of 9 to 5

Devon Nickel and Marcus Terrell Smith
Based on Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the musical Big River features Twain's iconic characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in their rowdy and heartfelt adventures. With a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by country music singer and songwriter Roger Miller, the musical swept the 1985 Tony Awards winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical. The Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting the show in a lovely, sweeping and intimate production that has excellent leads and adept direction.

Set in the 1840s, Big River follows the adventure-loving Huckleberry Finn as he is forced to fake his own death to escape from his drunken and violent father. Huck joins up with the runaway slave Jim, who is searching for his freedom and hopes to buy back his wife and children up North. They head down the Mississippi river on a make-shift raft, encountering colorful characters along the way. The river is the source of escape and freedom for both Huck and Jim, and the musical features many lovable characters and the emotionally uplifting and humorous situations from Twain's novel.

Miller's score features a nice combination of country, gospel and bluegrass, and Hauptman's book gives a lovely sense of Twain's story come to life. However, with the first twenty minutes somewhat sluggish in presenting the events that happen to Huck before he ends up on the raft with Jim, the show does take a bit of time to get going. But that issue is inherit to the musical and not just this production. Once Huck and Jim take off on their raft, to the driving beat of "Muddy Water," you're swept away on the adventure with them, an adventure full of rambunctious young boys, scheming con men, slaves and God fearing Southerners.

The cast includes Devon Nickel as Huck, and he is just about perfect. He evokes Huck's adventurous side with an effortlessly established sense of awe, bewilderment and wonder that also captures the wanderlust mood of the period. His gawky physique and sly sense of humor combine to add a layer of boyish charm and his singing is sweet with a nice country twang. Marcus Terrell Smith plays Jim with perfect conviction. He flawlessly evokes the highs and lows of this character, from the high of believing there is the possibility that he will be reunited with his wife and children, to the low of finding himself once again in chains. Smith's singing voice is clear and can be both quiet and lush or forceful and loud. It is a stirring performance. The connection these two actors have is very realistic, and the several duets they share, which are all highlights, are full of exuberance and a pure depth of feeling.

The cast also includes David Chorley as The Duke and Louis Farber as The King, two scheming, whimsical characters that Huck and Jim meet on their journey. While they both are playing the roles leaning more toward the humorous sides of the characters and less toward the scary, you still get an understanding that these two are willing to do just about anything to make a buck, even if it means selling off a person's possessions right from under them, including selling their slaves. Chorley also adds a nice bit of business in the way he delights in his humorous spouting of Shakespearean gibberish in an attempt to impress the less educated people he meets.

Patrick Steward is winning as Tom Sawyer. At only 17, Steward is the right age to get across the sense of boyhood adventure that Tom relishes. Like Nickel, he is bright-eyed and full of energy and I can imagine many great roles for Steward in the future. Andrew Lipman gets a nice turn as Huck's alcoholic, abusive father, including delivering a rousing rendition of "Guv'ment," in which Pap Finn spews his hatred for what the government has done to him in song. He also effectively conveys the emotional rollercoaster that a drunk goes through, scarily lunging at Huck with a knife and imagining that a stick is a snake. Kim Richard is appealing as Mary Jane Wilkes, the young woman whom Huck encounters in the second act. Her duet with Huck, "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" is sweetly delivered in a direct way. KatiBelle Collins is touching as both Huck's caretaker, the Widow Douglas, and Tom's loving Aunt Sally.

Direction by Tim Shawver nicely balances the comical moments with the dramatic ones, without letting the characters veer into caricature. There is much that goes on in this musical, and Shawver keeps the action moving swiftly along, while never losing sight of the emotional lessons to be learned. While Chris Peterson's set, sound and lighting designs may not completely conjure up the mighty Mississippi, he effectively uses the numerous set pieces to evoke the raft, the river, and the various locales with a nicely done lighting plot that portrays the various times of days and locations of the show with evocative shadow effects for the nighttime sequences. Tamara Treat's costumes are period perfect, in earthy tones of plaids and gingham, and an abundance of bonnets, hats and shawls. The eight-member band led by musical director Debra Jo Davey has a nice, lively, bluegrass sound to it, which works effectively with Miller's score. Having them in full view, dressed in period appropriate garb and with several of the band members playing cameo parts in the show, is also a nice touch.

Now, some of the solo singing parts in a few of the large ensemble numbers leave a little to be desired; the small space often seems very crowded when the entire cast is on stage; and the need to have several ensemble members move set pieces around to set up the next scene while the leads are speaking detracts a bit from the proceedings, but those are just small quibbles when considering at the many positives for this production.

Big River is a musical with lessons about learning from one another. Huck learns much from Jim about forgiveness, acceptance and the ability to overcome your obstacles. The Mesa Encore Theatre gets that message across in a rollicking and charming production with polished performances (including near perfect ones from Nickel and Smith and fun and multi-dimensional actors in the supporting parts) and flowing, clear direction.

Big River runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through April 19, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at

Director: Tim Shawver
Musical Direction: Debra Jo Davey
Set/Lighting/Sound Design: Christ Peterson
Costume Design: Tamara Treat
Huckleberry Finn: Devon Nickel
Jim: Marcus Terrell Smith
The King: Louis Farber
The Duke: David Chorley
Pap Finn: Andrew Lipman
Tom Sawyer: Patrick Steward
Mary Jane Wilkes: Kim Richard
Aunt Sally / Widow Douglas: KatiBelle Collins
Miss Watson: Susan St. John
Susan Wilkes: McKay Heffner
Joanna Wilkes: Kayla McLemore
Alice: Anne-Lise Koyabe
Alice's Daughter: Phoebe Koyabe
"The Crossing Soloist": Reginald Graham
Judge Thatcher: Darryl Poenisch
Harvey Wilkes: David Heap
Sheriff Bell: Deryl Gross
Young Fool: Rob Dominguez
Andy: Peyton Geery
Lafe: Josh Weinstein
Hank: Mike Cirillo
The Boys: Chance Weppler, Manny Quijda and Andrew Lopez
Ensemble: Star Parra, Paris D. Rhoad, Angelica McGrew and Carlee Coulehan

Photo: Sarah Rodgers/Mesa Encore Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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