Review: ‘TheatreWorks’ ‘Big River’ a nostalgic trip down the Mississippi

Many years ago, there was a mini-series of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” created by a Canadian television station. While there were parts of that special that received a grade of A in the subject of hokey, I must say I loved it. For any young boy, Tom Sawyer and the orphan boy Huck Finn lived the dream. I mean, the thought of catching your dinner and cooking on a raft, sailing down the Mississippi was a dream for nine-year-old me.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Big River,” the musical adaptation of Twain’s novel does a lot of things very well. It’s rustic feel, beautifully captured by set designer Joe Ragey and crafted nicely by director Robert Kelley, brings a wonderful spirit to Roger Miller’s captivating score. And while there are many touches that make the production a solid one, I didn’t always feel the urgency in the storytelling was there, and a few opportunities were missed as they traveled down the river.

The production was also a homecoming for Hayward product James Monroe Iglehart, who spent the last eight years on Broadway in TheatreWorks’ baby “Memphis.” Iglehart clearly has a profound mastery of the boards, fleshing out many aspects of runaway slave Jim, and dazzles in his solo numbers.

The other strength of the production is the different layers and textures that encompassed the Lucie Stern Theatre stage. Much of that texture is provided in the form of an engaging score with music and lyrics by Miller. William Liberatore’s musical direction and conduction is the centerpiece of this production, with much reverence placed towards the bluegrass and country twang styles that fill the piece.

Many of the numbers capture the romance of the South. Songs such as the succulent duet “River in the Rain” remind us that rain may fall in other places, Southern rain is a gift. “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” is a fun and playful ditty that capture the spirit of traveling con men. And Iglehart’s rendition of “Free at Last” is the momentous, tear-inducing showstopper, performed with strength and bravado with Jim’s fellow slaves.

Alex Goley’s turn as Huck Finn was a charismatic one, a portrayal that melded nicely with Iglehart’s Jim. And Scott Reardon’s main role as Tom Sawyer captured nicely the spirit of adventure that fills the original novel. In addition to the principal roles, the joyful portrayals of Jackson Davis as the Duke and Martin Rojas-Dietrich as the King were quite the show stealers, filling the proceedings with humor and energy.

Where the production doesn’t always hit its target is in its urgency. The play is set in pre-Civil War south. And there is no underlying the fact that what Jim and Huck were doing could get them killed at any second. Yet, I did not always feel the show did enough to tell that story. There is every reason to have a sense of danger and foreboding fill the stage in many of the moments. Unfortunately, those opportunities were missed, which didn’t counterbalance the joy and humor nearly enough.

Recently, I saw a piece that aired on ABC’s Nightline about aspiring rapper Darius Weems, who traveled the country with his friends to raise awareness about Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease which is slowly taking his life. On that trip, his friends tricked him into trying the sushi condiment wasabi. As Weems predictably had his face blown off by the spice while his buddies howled, onlookers observed the young black man in the wheelchair and found their joke cruel.

I was reminded of that episode when Tom reveals a trick that was played on Jim, which is at the heart of the piece. What makes the story resonate so well today is the fact that in these young boys’ eyes, Jim is not a slave. He is a man, a fellow friend they need in order to continue their adventures. “Big River” is a reminder of the goodness found in people in the ugliest of circumstances. It might not be titled “The Nutcracker” or “A Christmas Carol,” but “Big River” offers a critical lesson in the human spirit around Christmastime. And that is always a good thing.

Huck (Alex Goley) and Jim (James Monroe Iglehart) escape down the Mississippi in TheatreWorks' production of "Big River" in Palo Alto (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Huck (Alex Goley) and Jim (James Monroe Iglehart) escape down the Mississippi in TheatreWorks’ production of “Big River” in Palo Alto. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

 

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Big River”
Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
Directed by Robert Kelley
The Word: More urgency in the story is needed in an otherwise fine production of “Big River.”
Stars: 4 out of 5
Dec. 1st – Dec. 30th
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $31 – $73
For tickets and more information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

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