Rockin' the raft
Light on bite but earnest of heart, TheatreWorks' 'Big River' shows off a superb ensemble
When Mark Twain wrote "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in 1884, he had in mind a more biting social satire than his earlier works, skewering the hypocrisy and bad conscience of a nation that continued to cling to prejudice. The 1985 musical based on the book, "Big River," with music by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, keeps that satire alive but also has fun with the homespun humor and spirit of American ingenuity.
Despite some corny opening scenes, the show is a satisfying holiday confection, especially with this production's fantastic cast that knows how to deliver bold characters and big tunes.
Huck Finn (Alex Goley) narrates his own adventures in both the book and the musical, often with comical asides and observations. He's the endearing embodiment of a misfit, mischievous and impulsive and definitely unwilling to stay inside society's strictures. As much as his guardians the Widow Douglas (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and Miss Watson (Alison Ewing) try to teach him "Christian ways," and as much as he tries to do the right thing, he can't seem to reconcile the way people sermonize with the way they act, and this confuses him.
He tells us the story of how he lights out on his own, only to be captured by his drunken, abusive father. He manages to escape "Pap" (Gary S. Martinez) by faking his own death, and heads to the river with escaped slave Jim (James Monroe Iglehart), a man he knows as Miss Watson's slave and trusts in spite of their racial difference. As Huck and Jim ride their raft down the Mississippi, Huck begins to appreciate this stranger as a genuine human being, one with hopes and fears and dreams not unlike his own.
Their adventures on the river mostly follow those of the book, including encounters with debris and drowned bodies, and slave hunters whom Huck has to fend off with trickery. Missing their steamboat junction for Jim to escape North, they allow on the raft two grifters who call themselves The Duke and The King, (Jackson Davis and Martin Rojas Dietrich) whose fraudulent dealings are at first amusing to Huck, but then turn ugly.
When the grifters' greed gets everyone in deep trouble and the Duke sells Jim to a farmer, Huck reckons that the "wrong" thing in these circumstances (freeing Jim) is actually the "right" thing, and declares he doesn't care if he does go to Hell. Through a series of adventures, with assistance and interference from Tom Sawyer (Scott Reardon), Huck and Jim are reunited to claim their "happy" ending. It may seem tentative or momentary — with Twain, the dangers of society's hypocrisy tend to lurk just around the page-turn — but, hey, this is a musical, with a pleasing resolution for our heroes.
Miller's music and Hauptman's book do iron out some of Twain's satire, but the central themes are still there. Considering some of the public rhetoric and invective of recent times, it's glaringly evident we are still learning lessons from our collective history. After the less effective opening scenes, the story moves onto the raft and the show becomes more compelling. The second half is especially good, with more action, tighter writing and less of Huck's redundant narration.
The whole production is buoyed up by fabulous acting and singing from a superb ensemble, helmed by charismatic leads Iglehart and Goley. Iglehart, local favorite turned Broadway star, has the voice of a baritone angel, smooth as velvet and as big as that wide river he's rafting. You can feel the audience melt into a grateful puddle whenever he sings. Goley's youthful tenor, energetic, lyrical and effortless, harmonizes beautifully with Iglehart's voice, and carries much of the rest of the show.
Most ensemble performers have opportunities to solo as well as contribute to a warm, full sound, and all do their many roles justice. Reardon as Tom Sawyer has the wit and innocence along with the solid vocals needed; Katie Jane Martin shines in her numbers as Mary Jane Wilkes; and Martinez is surprisingly funny in his role as the despicable Pap.
Davis and Dietrich stand out in their colorful turns as The Duke and The King, with terrific comic skills for their many scenarios. They sing, they dance, they recite Shakespeare, they do the Nonesuch — well, you'll just have to see it.
Joe Ragey's scenic design is a marvelous mix of rolling and flying set pieces set against a backdrop of the mighty river; the raft alone is an ingenious bit. B. Modern's costumes fit both our imaginations and the period, telling us much about these characters in the details. I enjoyed Kikau Alvaro's choreography and director Robert Kelley's staging, both of which kept the show lively and engaging.
It may feel a bit corny at first, but relax and let the show envelop you in its earnest heart. Later you can reflect on whether Twain's satire has retained its bite as well as its homespun humor.
What: "Big River," with music by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, based on the book by Mark Twain; presented by TheatreWorks
Where: at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: through Dec. 30, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $23-$73.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.