Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Big River
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Othello

Robert Collins and Nicholas Gunnell
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
When you first enter the auditorium for Hale Centre Theatre's production of Big River, you'll recognize the sound of frogs croaking and water flowing along with other peaceful, familiar noises of life on the riverside, echoing off in the distant. This evokes a nostalgic feeling of a simpler time from years ago for this solid, intimate and moving production of the Tony winning musical. That's the same sense you get when reading Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which was the basis for Big River and which features Twain's iconic and beloved characters, the rambunctious and rowdy Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and stories of adventurous young boys, scheming con men, runaway slaves, and God-fearing Southerners.

Big River is set in the 1840s and follows the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who fakes his own death to escape his drunken and violent father. Huck joins up with the runaway slave Jim, who is searching for his freedom and longs to journey up North with hopes to buy back his wife and children, and together they head down the Mississippi river on a make-shift raft, encountering colorful characters along the way.

Big River swept the 1985 Tony Awards, winning seven Tonys, including the one for Best Musical, though there wasn't much competition that year, with three flop shows, Grind, Leader of the Pack, and Quilters also up for the top prize. While Big River has a few shortcomings due to its episodic nature, which, like the book, is a series of vignettes featuring larger than life characters, all strung together with narration, it still results in a heartwarming, funny, and ultimately moving experience.

The majority of the show is set on the Mississippi River, which is the source of escape, adventure and, ultimately, freedom for both Huck and Jim. The Tony Award winning book by William Hauptman weaves together many of the lovable characters and emotionally uplifting and humorous situations from Twain's novel, including some that Huck has with his best friend Tom Sawyer, and it features a nice balance of comedy and drama. However, some of those adventures happen in the first 20 minutes of the show, before Huck and Jim start off on the raft, with a few of those sequences being unfocused, rushed or even dragged out, which delays the thrust of the show. But those moments are inherent to the musical and not this production, and once Huck and Jim launch the raft into the river, to the uplifting and forceful strains of the song "Muddy Water," the musical and this production get off to a roaring start. The score by country music singer and songwriter Roger Miller, features many toe-tapping tunes and soaring ballads in musical styles that range from country to gospel and bluegrass.

While this production leans more toward the comedic nature of the show, Tim Dietlein's direction ensures several of the dramatic moments resonate, especially those toward the end, and he also never lets his cast, who are all excellent, veer too much into broad humor or caricature.

Nicholas Gunnell's lovely, clear singing voice and sense of humor, adventure, wonder, and down to earth sensibility instills Huck with the perfect level of wanderlust. In "Waitin' for the Light to Shine," Huck sings about how he has lived in the darkness for too long and is waiting for the light to come into this life. Over the course of the show, Gunnell allows us to see how Huck grows, changes, learns, and ultimately sees how people's lives affect his own and how he can help impact other people's lives for the better. Robert Collins is delivering one of the best portrayals of Jim I've seen. The conviction he brings to the part runs the gamut from joy and hope, when he talks about being back with his wife and children, to fear and uncertainty when he finds himself, once again, in chains. His singing voice is superb and his performance of "Free at Last" is an emotionally moving showstopper. While Gunnell may play Huck somewhat more comedic than I've seen others do, the connection he and Collins have is strong, rich, and full of feeling. Their final scene together brought me to tears.

Tim Paul Fiscus and Matthew R. Harris are bright and funny but also bring an undercurrent of fear to their roles of The King and The Duke, respectively. Huck and Jim meet this duo of scheming con men, who will do anything for a dime, on their journey and Fiscus and Harris instantly draw them, and the audience, into their shenanigans. The script doesn't shy away from the racist attitudes they have, especially those of The King, and under Dietlein's clear direction and Fiscus' strong portrayal of those views, we quickly see the men treat Jim as property, having no problem using him to their advantage. Harris has a dramatic scene toward the end of the show which he expertly delivers in such a way to give empathy to this man who usually has no concern for others.

In supporting roles, Allan DeWitt shows spunk and energy as Tom Sawyer, and Maya Weber is sweet and charming as Mary Jane Wilkes, a young woman Huck meets. As Pap Finn, Rob Stuart, who took over the part the night I attended, like Gunnell, plays the part more comedic than dramatic. While his solo song "Guv'ment" is funny, he could add a touch of fear to the part of this drunken and abusive father so the audience better understands why Huck wants to escape from living with him. Kathleen Richard, Bonnie Beus Romney, and Tom Endicott are stern yet charming as Huck's caretakers and Tom's aunt and uncle, and Nick Williams has great exuberance as the Young Fool who has the upbeat solo number "Arkansas." Anne-lise Koyabe, Savannah Alfred, Nathan Alfred, and Pierre Brookins provide some gorgeous and lush vocals in several numbers, with Koyabe's solo of "How Blest We Are" and their harmonies during "The Crossing" especially stirring.

Brian Daily's gorgeous scenic design uses wooden planks throughout the entire set, on the floors and the walls, to provide a rustic feel to the entire production. His design for the raft, while small, works incredibly well to give a sense of floating down the river, as it moves in many directions across the Hale stage. Dietlein's lighting design uses deep blues and warm reds to beautifully evoke the many locations and times of day. Tia Hawkes' costumes, which include a nice combination of fabrics and styles in earth tones and plaids, and Cambrian James' wig and make up designs, are period perfect. James' choreography is full of energy and Elizabeth Spencer's music direction delivers gorgeous vocals from the entire cast.

Big River is a musical with sweeping adventures and larger than life characters. It also has some valuable lessons about how we can all learn from each other about acceptance and forgiveness. With a superb cast and gorgeous creative aspects, Hale Centre Theatre's production is a rousing, humorous and ultimately emotionally rich presentation of this Tony winning show.

Big River, through May 11, 2019, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 480-497-1181

Directed by Tim Dietlein
Choreographed by Cambrian James
Music Director: Elizabeth Spencer
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Tia Hawkes
Lighting Designer: Tim Dietlein
Wigs & Make-Up: Cambrian James
Props: McKenna Carpenter & Monica Christiansen
Sound Design: Gary Towne
Stage Manager: Justin Peterson

Huckleberry Finn: Nicholas Gunnell
Jim: Robert Collins
The King/Teacher: Tim Paul Fiscus
The Duke/Preacher: Matthew R. Harris
Tom Sawyer: Allan DeWitt
Widow Douglas/Aunt Sally: Kathleen Richard
Miss Watson/Strange Woman: Bonnie Beus Romney
Pap Finn: Rob Stuart
Judge Thatcher/Doctor: Joey Morrison
Silas Phelps/Lafe: Tom Endicott
Mary Jane Wilkes/Ensemble: Maya Weber
Alice's Daughter/Ensemble: Anne-lise Koyabe
Alice/Ensemble: Savannah Alfred
Gospel Singer/Ensemble: Nathan Alfred
Gospel Singer /Ensemble: Pierre Brookins Dick/Andy/Ensemble: Kale Burr
Simon/Ensemble: Hunter Cuison
Joanna Wilkes/Ensemble: Annalise Decker
Ben Rogers/Hank/Ensemble: Nathan Spector
Jo Harper/Young Fool/Ensemble: Nick Williams
Susan Wilkes/Ensemble: Emily Woodward-Shaw