If you’ve ever wanted a chance to drift down the Mississippi river on a raft with Mark Twain and his fantastical imagination, then Greenbelt Arts Center is giving you your chance with their production of Big River. A charming venture into America’s past time with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman and directed by Mary Lou Fisher, the timeless tale of Huckleberry Finn and his wild and crazy adventures comes to life through song and dance.
Having a live orchestra that performs partially on stage enhances the bucolic feeling of the play’s background. Harmonica player Michael K. Heney adds a lovely spice and flare to the orchestrations that give the play a down home feel, really inviting the audience into the culture of the show. The orchestral volume is perfectly balanced by Conductor Christine Wells, louder during scene changes and scene pauses, and backing off appropriately during scenes when the vocals of the actors needs to shine through.
The other fantastic device that transports the audience from modern day Greenbelt down to Mark Twain’s Mississippi is Set Designer Jen Retterer’s serene mural that covers the entire back wall of the staging space. With lush greens and warm rural tones the atmosphere is set and accented with pages of Twain’s writing that frames the remainder of the theatre. Retterer’s unique approach to blending book text and the concepts of the musical in her scenic design augment the aesthetic value of the production.
Director Mary Lou Fisher has some casting missteps in her ensemble and there was an overall issue with keeping tempo and intonation throughout the performance I attended. Musical numbers like “Do Ya Want To Go To Heaven” and “How Blest Are We” where the whole company was involved tended to be where the problems were the greatest. The company as a whole made up for what they lacked in vocal ability with their enthusiasm.
An unusual choice made by Fisher was casting Jen Retterer as Tom Sawyer, the well-known rascal pal of Huck Finn. Retterer gives a sensational acting performance, delving into the rich southern accent and tomfoolery of Sawyer’s character, but the vocal numbers like “The Boys” and “Hand For the Hog” are out of her achievable range..
The solo performers that carry the show are interspersed throughout the production. Dayleen DeRiggs leads the slave chorus in a harrowing and soulful rendition of “The Crossing.” Appearing later during “How Blest Are We” her voice is clearly recognizable and well sung with powerful support. Another shining star rises in Pap Finn (Dan MacMillan). Stumbling about as a bit of a comic if abrasive drunk, MacMillan gives a rousing performance during “Guv’ment.” His wily accent and teetering physicality make the disagreeable character rather enjoyable.
Comic relief comes in the off-kilter duo of The Duke (Brian Binney) and The King (David Weaver). While Binney is the stronger actor and singer of the two, Weaver is not without his assets. The pair team up with Huck Finn for “In The South,” a number that solidifies the first act of the show. Binney is a comical hoot during “The Royal Nonesuch” and his attempts at Shakespeare leave the audiences in stitches.
Splitting the weight of the show’s success are Kevin Stockwell in the role of Jim and Mike Culhane in the role of Huck Finn. Both performers show fantastic vocal prowess and a rich understanding of the characters’ depths. Stockwell has absolutely priceless facial responses when reacting to Huck and various other characters throughout the show. His voice is both powerful and flawless when it comes delivering deep heartfelt numbers like “Worlds Apart” and “Muddy Water.” Both of these duets are carried by Stockwell, leaving a profound impression on the audience.
Culhane as the iconic Huck Finn is a masterful performer for someone so young. He is the epitome of Twain’s character leaped to life from the pages of the book. With all of the vigorous energy of an adventurous youth and all the keen perception of a seasoned performer, Culhane steals the show in all the appropriate moments. With spunk and gumption, Culhane bounces around while narrating the story, but he settles easily into a more serious disposition when singing deeply moving songs like “Waitin’ For The Light To Shine” and “River In The Rain.”
Together both Culhane and Stockwell make a great team to guide this raft down the river, and they guide the show to success at the end of it all. Don’t miss your chance to float on down this Big River.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission.