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Big River boasts big voices, bigger message
Village Theatre kicked off the 2012-2013 last week with the opening of "Big River," the acclaimed Broadway musical inspired by Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Directed by Steve Tomkins, the Village Theatre production stars Broadway veteran Rodney Hicks in the role of Jim and newcomer Randy Scholz as Huck, in an entertaining journey down the Mississippi River, chock-full of upbeat bluegrass tunes and lots of sass.
Featuring music and lyrics by the late country great Roger Miller, this production revamps the classic version, bringing aspects of the old-timey instrumentation to the stage. Using the silent but sturdy Mark Twain character as a segue, the banjo, acoustic guitar and harmonica became an integral part of the live show that filled out both the sound and the feel of the Southern states the story took place in.
Scholz seemed to truly embody Huck Finn. From the youthful expressions to the ingenuous delivery of his lines, the actor has the angst-y teen thing down to a T, which made the character incessantly charming and likable. On the other side of the spectrum, Hicks' Jim is conflicted and complicated, a man burdened by the dangers that come with escaping slavery and defined by the goal to free his wife and children.
There were several high points throughout the production: actor David Anthony Lewis, as Pap, singing "Guv'ment," was an absolute riot. And Hicks and Scholz' stirring rendition of "Muddy Water" was stunning for more reasons than one. But the true vocal standouts proved to be the ensemble cast.
Helmed by the trio of Stacie Pinkney Calkins, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako and Indeah Thomaier, it’d be difficult not to be mesmerized by the rich, gospel take on Miller’s tunes - especially on "The Crossing," a heartbreaking ballad that anchored the first act. There's real power and heart behind the words and you couldn't help but feel the passion poured into every line.
The true strength of this musical is that it's so much more than your typical song and dance. Though laced with comedic one-liners (most of which come at the hands of criminals the Duke and the King), the driving force behind the tale is the friendship between Jim and Huck.
Both touching and troublesome, Twain’s story hones in on humanity's constant struggle with right versus wrong and the complications that come with growing up. In doing so, he takes us on a journey that stands the test of time.