Review of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Haupton
Adopted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin
Music Direction by Craig Burdette
Lucky Penny Productions
For tickets / schedule :
Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, Napa
RUN: September 9 – 25, 2016
RATING: 4 of 5 stars
(September 10, 2016)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most important and controversial works of American fiction. Scholars have argued for its merit as an abolitionist work, and criticized it as racist. What can be agreed upon is that it raises questions that are relevant today. Lucky Penny states that “Much consideration was spent when analyzing the script before production began, and we decided that it was written in this manner for a reason. So we chose not to alter this classic piece of literature to ensure it maintained the author’s original intent.” The era and setting of the story demonstrate how ingrained the idea of slavery as an honorable institution was in society. Huck Finn reprimands himself for helping a runaway slave, thinking it will send him to hell, and makes him a bad person, but the sacrifice is worth it to save his friend.
Roger Miller’s music and lyrics draw on the African American spirituals tradition, with strong melody, minor key accents, and powerful singing. Kennedy Williams steps in for a series of moving laments, such as her Crossing solo as a recaptured slave being herded back to St. Louis. Having lived in that city, I saw first-hand how devastating racial tension can be to this day. The scene was a heart-rending reminder of how far we have to go as a country to become one people, rather than divided. The strength of this musical is its ability to combine a fun adventure story with tragic moments that silence us into contemplation of how human beings could treat each other in such a way.
Adam Blankenship as Huckleberry Finn is an amiable country bumpkin who is batted back and forth between two strict Christian women and his drunken abusive father. His stage presence keeps the energy level high throughout the play, his forceful voice carrying many a solo. The two con artists, portrayed boisterously by Barry Martin and Michael Scott Wells, swagger and entertain until greed turns their antics into a nightmare. Tom Sawyer (Jordan Martin) provides constant laughs with his romantic notions and schemes. Phillip Percy Williams’ performance as Jim is a masterful combination of comedy and anguish. He pals around with Huck Finn until moving the atmosphere to a quiet opening of the heart, sharing his love for the family that was ripped away from him, and plans to work for their freedom if it takes him the rest of his life. Free at Last is a beautiful cry of longing from Jim as he languishes shackled in an old shed. The reprise of River in the Rain closes the musical on a quiet note of regret and yearning.
Barbara McFadden’s costume designs are streamlined and nostalgic, with enough historical accuracy to create a believable setting. Huck Finn’s single strap overall is evocative of the original Huckleberry Finn illustrations from 1885, but it is troublesome in a moving play, causing constant adjustments that distract from the action. The set design by Taylor Bartoluci and Barry Martin places the small theatre on the banks of a river, complete with rushes and hanging mosses.
Do not miss Big River by Lucky Penny Productions—an impactful journey into the past, when slavery was not only accepted, but considered the natural order. It is a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther we need to go to eliminate racial inequality. Big River is a play to bring the whole family to; it features a strong cast of young people, important message, and lively musical numbers.