Review: ‘Huckleberry Finn’s Big River’ at Adventure Theatre MTC

The excellence of this world premiere of Huckleberry Finn’s Big River ensures that it will become a family theater classic. Not only are the script, songs and choreography expertly crafted and executed in this production, but this heartwarming, entertaining adaptation has an important, empowering message for all who watch.

Max Gerecht (Huck) and Nathan Butts (Jim) in the world premiere of Huckleberry Finn's Big River at Adventure Theatre MTC. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.
Max Gerecht (Huck) and Nathan Butts (Jim) in the world premiere of ‘Huckleberry Finn’s Big River’ at Adventure Theatre MTC. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Huckleberry Finn’s Big River details the raft-bound adventures of two young friends who have very different backgrounds and goals. The wise and thoughtful Jim is a slave boy trying to outrun slavery, and the boisterous and carefree Huck is a free boy trying to outrun maturity. By sticking together, the two overcome many obstacles, including misguided relatives, villains, and the river itself. By the end of the tale, Huck is free of his childish ways and Jim is free to go north.

This premiere of Huckleberry Finn’s Big River is a young-audience revision of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning Big River by William Hauptman. This production, by Adventure Theatre MTC, was co-produced with The Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, in association with Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals and First Stage. To inform and elevate the representation of the African American characters, Adventure Theatre MTC collaborated with African American community experts, including Joy Turner of the Sandy Springs Slave Museum, Historian Bernard Demczuk of Ben’s Chili Bowl, and Andrew Plumley of Equity in the Center.

Director Michael Baron deftly orchestrated the talented cast, which is evident in the perfectly timed delivery of lines, the passionately-performed solos and ensembles, and the fluid execution of complex choreography. These three elements are most notable in the first song that Jim (Nathan Butts) and Huck (Max Gerecht) sing on the raft they are using to float down the Mississippi River. In “Muddy Water,” the two sing while standing on the raft and use large tree branches to push themselves down the river. The raft is actually moving around on the stage–so, praise to Butts and Gerecht who simultaneously balance, steer, and sing. Along with the duet, fellow cast members Alexa Givens (Alice), Anna Maria C. Shockey (Mary Jane), Matthew Schleigh (The Duke), Joshua Simon (The King), Sarah Anne Sillers (Widow Douglas/Strange Fellow/Sally Phelps), and Calvin Malone (Sheriff Bell/Judge Thatcher/Stern Man/Silas Phelps) sing harmony from the theater’s two entryways.

The second number, “Look a Here Huck,” is a lively jig that sums up Huck’s initial situation with the lyrics, “You’ll never be a grown-up ‘cause you won’t know how.” In this song, Sarah Anne Sillers’ expertise in acting and singing is apparent; her clear, spirited voice and gestures establish the high standard followed during the rest of the production. Alexa Givens exceeds the standard in her solo, “How Blessed We Are.” Her melodic, full-bodied voice was captivating as she sang the poignant lyrics of a slave girl yearning for the equal love of God, with the lyrics “How blessed we are, children of a God who’s real.”

Kudos to Choreographer Ashleigh King’s first-class choreography, which added flair and flourish to the production. It was fun to watch the precise, yet comedic dance performed by Matthew Schleigh and Joshua Simon when they sang “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.” The visual effect of their arms interlocking and alternating with each other’s over and under in time to the song they sang was entertaining.

Alexa Givens as Alice in the world premiere of Huckleberry Finn's Big River at Adventure Theatre MTC. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.
Alexa Givens as Alice in the world premiere of ‘Huckleberry Finn’s Big River’ at Adventure Theatre MTC. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Scenic Designer Debra Kim Sivigny’s set pulled the whole production together. A painted mural of an impressionist-style Mississippi River runs from a glass backdrop onto the stage, then onto the floor and finally into the two theater entryways. The river was painted so that it starts narrower on the glass backdrop, gets wider on the stage and ends wider still on the floor, giving the river a 3-D feel.

Costumes were the finishing touch to this exceptional premiere. Costume Designer Jeffrey Meek’s expertise was especially notable in Jim’s outfit of homespun pants complete with rips and a rope belt, a checked shirt with rolled sleeves and a ripped pocket, and scuffed black laced shoes. Another spectacular costume was the black jacquard taffeta hoop dress worn by Mary Jane.

Running Time: One hour and ten minutes, with no intermission.

Huckleberry Finn’s Big River runs through March 10, 2019, at Adventure Theatre – 7300 MacArthur Blvd (Glen Echo Park), Glen Echo, MD 20812. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 634-2270, or go online.