Music and lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
Adapted from a novel by Mark Twain
Directed by Mark Edward Smith
Musical Direction by Timothy Turner
Starring Jeffery Todd Parrott and Clinton Harris
Mad Cow Theatre
This commentary was prepared from a preview performance.
“Big River” tells a big story, employs a big cast and lets them belt some big numbers. Huck Finn (Parrott) lives on the Mississippi River frontier and is torn between book learning and being a good old boy. In those days, it was a close choice; education wasn’t all that important when it comes to hunting wild pigs and managing slaves. His friend Tom Sawyer (Liam O’Connor) thinks in a more genteel manner, but he seeks adventure and it needs to use all of the day’s high tech: sleeping draughts, complicated lock picking, and unnecessary injury. Huck stumbles upon a runaway slave Jim (Harris), discovers he’s about to be captured, and the pair heads off on a raft hoping to get to Cairo, Illinois in the free territories. They miss that safe harbor but hook up with a pair of con men (Mickey Layman and Alex Mansoor). Jim is captured, Tom and Huck free him, and adventure piles on adventure. Looks like Huck lived in interesting times.
This show shines when it shows the complex relation between Jim and Huck. Emotionally Huck knows slavery is wrong, but still believes in good old American property rights. Vocally, he’s got a nice sound but doesn’t project the volume this large show needs. Fortunately, he tends to sing right on the stage lip, so you can hear him well enough. Harris is large yet vulnerable, not only do you want him to get away and recover his family, but you just want to hug him when times are bad. Supporting actor Bobby Bell stole the show with his over the top Tea Party Republican rant about “Guv’ment.” Another superior performance came from Alex Mansoori as the tarred and feathered con man who paid for the overreach of his oily compatriot Mr. Layman. The best ensemble number here are the gospel tunes “Do You Want to Get to Heaven” and “How Blest We Are.” On the slow side “Muddy River” and “River in the Rain” are the most impressive ballads. All these songs draw from our collective unconscious of that Big River; this show looks back to the blues and gospel music that lays the foundation of the American musical cannon.
“Broad River” also looks the racism square in the eye. As Huck’s morality struggle unfolds, the “N-word” and other slurs pop up unapologetically. I applaud that; even in a musical of this size it’s best we not forget where we come from. Jim is truly a tragic figure; even in his final triumph he still has a herculean task ahead to get his wife and children out of bondage. There’s a good dose of bitter medicine here, but it’s sugar coated with some great music and some great theatrical performances.
For more information on Mad Cow, please visit http://www.madcowtheatre.com