Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stormed Broadway in 1985 sweeping nearly all Tony Awards for that year. Well, with a script rooted in Mark Twain what could go wrong? Nothing, since the musical genially nails the spirit and script of Mark Twain’s legendary novel as well as its social critique. Now it’s down the road at Sharon Playhouse: this dynamic little raft flows out to the audience as a river of song, the lyrics of which ride on emotion and thought, not the pablum most commonly served in musical theater.
The really great news concerns the two lead singers: Young Joseph Allen as naïve yet thoughtful Huck, and veteran singer Nicholas Ward present a charming duo, whose situational conflicts disappear in melded, memorable harmonies. Allen is a talented tenor student at Penn State, while Nicholas Ward is a major bass star (with an imposing list of credentials) that any quality production would love to showcase. (One could build a theater around him.)
Thomas Cannizzaro, as Duke, performs amazingly well in perhaps the most difficult acting scene of the play: his Shakespeare anthology soliloquy that eloquently skewers many of Shakespeare’s best lines. Travis Mitchell excels in the comic role of King, especially the funeral oration that unwittingly tramples Victorian decency, but his secondary role as Huck’s Pap suffers from bombastic expostulation when more taciturn scheming and jealous petulance might be more apt. Yet Mitchell’s dancing and impish mugging as King remains one of the play’s pleasurable highlights. Alex Dorf as Tom Sawyer is another young student with good voice.
Jennifer Werner (as choreographer) and all actors involved in “The Boys” acrobatic dance number deserve special applause. James Cunningham’s direction of the small orchestra doesn’t miss a beat. Costumes by Michelle Eden Humphrey appear both authentic and attractive. Sets by Josh Smith swivel and swing like clockwork. Director John Simpkins lands with another triumph!
Ensemble singing attains apotheosis in the concluding number, “River in the Rain.” Amid the ensemble singing of “The Crossing” and “How Blest We Are,” the voice of Galyana Castillo, as Alice, vibrates with memorable force. You can catch her again this fall in the National Tour of Fame! The music offers mainstream West Virginia tunes with some African American melodies and one Irish tune.
This musical remains surprisingly faithful to Twain’s novel: including Twain’s satire on English accents, as well as French literature (Rousseau—flagellation; Dumas—sentimental melodrama). While Dumas employed the lavish stage of French history in his melodramatic novels, Twain created an epic set in a small American town, giving the outlaw searching voice to an adolescent who sees through the complacent hypocrisy of adult life and wants authenticity rather than amoral resignation.
The Big River of Mark Twain’s mischievous humor and ironic satire now flows nearby at Sharon Playhouse. Twain wrote a few plays and one must wonder why he never saw the possibilities of this work as a play: but the American musical had not yet been invented.
There are only three weekends before this thrilling and amusing singing raft departs downriver. The play runs Thursday through Sunday through July 31. For more details go to www.sharonplayhouse.org or call (860) 364-7469, ext. 201.