Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Theater review: Head downstream with motley crew of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The musical plays at Casa Mañana through September 29.
FORT WORTH Believe it or not, Fort Worth’s own King of the Road, Roger Miller, shared an interesting commonality with the world’s King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Miller held the record for most Grammy Awards won by an individual artist until 1984 when Jackson added a staggering eight Grammys to his mounting collection for a little album called Thriller. Not bad for a country boy. Miller holds one distinction over Jackson, however, in that Miller went on to pen the music and lyrics for a Tony Award-winning musical.
Building on the book by William Hauptman, and adapted from the American classic by Mark Twain, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers a musical interpretation of the teen’s exploits and maturation as he travels south down the waters of the mighty Mississippi. The anti-slavery message is poignant and clear, but not without the playful humor so often associated with Twain’s work.
Casa Manaña brought in New York casting director Eric Woodall to direct the opening production of their 55th season, and it was immediately clear upon entering the silver dome that Mr. Woodall’s vision for Big River was anything but small. He chose to set the story inside a library, thusly the Casa stage was transformed from board to rafter. A second level ran the length of the stage, splitting the library into two floors of bookshelves, picture windows and mobile stairs.
Colt Frank’s scenic design also included nearly 4,000 books donated to fill the shelves of the library, a praiseworthy detail for my fellow bibliophiles in the audience. Everything on the stage reflected the library theme, from the lighting pieces to the overstuffed leather sofa and gigantic work tables. The sofa, set on its side, later doubled as the inside of Injun Joe’s cave, and the massive work table was flipped on its back and boarded as a raft when Huck and Jim start their journey.
Since the library was a constant reminder of the indoors, Lighting Designer Samuel Rushen was tasked with bringing the outdoors in for scenes that required natural elements. Every choice was pointed and direct and beautifully reflective of the action in the scene. The swirling green go between effect used during “Muddy Water" was one such example, and the three hazy-blue down lights focused on the actors during “Waitin' for the Light to Shine" brought a natural coolness into the theater.
Similarly, Jonathan Parke’s sound design was integral to the success and believability of the outdoor scenes. The singing cicadas were rich and woodsy, and the rain and thunderstorm sounds were crisp and clear and bounced radiantly off all available surfaces. There seemed to be an overabundance of reverb during the boys scene in Injun Joe’s cave, but the sound was otherwise on point and without the feedback and outages experienced during some other recent Casa productions.
The costumes ranged from raggedy denim overalls to ornately layered pre-Civil War funeral dresses, with a dash of dirty indigent and a splash of Grandma’s bosom thrown in for good measure. Costume Designer Tammy Spencer represented each character distinctly which helped the audience suspend disbelief when actors played multiple roles. Kudos to Sondra Nottingham’s wig and makeup design for transitioning the menacing Pap Finn into the spritely King with proper fit and flare.
Big River isn’t a dance-heavy show, but Mr. Woodalls’ blocking combined with Jeremy Dumont’s exuberant choreography lent the characters the ability to show off in their individual comfort zones. The energy expended by Tom and Huck and their gang during “The Boys" set the pace for Act I and also cemented their ages within the story. Likewise, the more mature actors moved with propriety for their age and characterizations, which was helpful in pushing the plot along.
Music Director/Conductor/Keyboardist W. Brent Sawyer pulled together a lovely group of nine musicians to breathe life into Roger Miller’s musical creation. Mr. Miller was most known for his achievements in country music, and Big River does not stray far from those roots, though it pulls back another layer of the family tree to reveal the deeper roots of country music: gospel. The music in this show was a gift for country and gospel enthusiasts, and each of the 19 songs blended together perfectly while managing that everyday truth for which both genres are so often recognized.
This all-star cast forged a perfect storm on the Casa Manaña stage; not a single performance was less than the sum of its parts. I was especially fond of the quartet of actors who played a variety of characters including runaway slaves and domestic servants. This fierce foursome, Simone Gundy, Maurice Johnson, Sheran Keyton and Anthony Kirlew, stunned during their rendition of “The Crossing.” Led by Sheran Keyton, this song was the showstopper for me in that the harmonies were so rich and warm they could’ve melted butter. Beyond the auditory splendor, the song reinforced the dark truth of Jim’s reality juxtaposed against Huck’s carefree decision to have some fun traveling down the river. Simone Gundy’s powerhouse delivery of the funeral song, “How Blest We Are," was another such moment for me, for her character was enslaved but still praising God for her blessings.
Jeremy Dumont was a delight as Tom Sawyer. His gregarious confidence when leading the boys was endearing, as was his overall energy onstage. Oh, to bottle and sell that talent! Alison Hodgson struck a lovely figure as Mary Jane Wilkes, and her vocals with Huck on “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go" were a highlight of Act II. The flawless harmonies by all three of the Wilkes sisters during “You Oughta Be Here" with Mewas another reinforcement of the well-matched abilities of this cast. While I lamented her lack of stage time, Julie Johnson was spot on in her portrayals of the Widow Douglas and Sally Phelps. Her Southern inflections and delivery were unmatched.
Jaston Williams, the co-creator of Greater Tuna, elicited Texas-sized laughs with his representation of The Duke. His homage to Shakespeare a great big hodgepodge of lines by several of The Bard’s tragic males (namely Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Ceasar) played with robust humor. The slightly effeminate, affected way with which Mr. Williams delivered The Duke compounded the comedy and individualized his performance amongst the strong ensemble cast.
In his 83rd production with Casa Manaña since his debut in 1968, David Coffee proved out his status as local legend and fan favorite. As Pap Finn, Mr. Coffee delivered the unkempt, unlikeable scamp with dingy, jug-swilling perfection. His inebriated “Guv’ment" didn’t win him any points with the Father of the Year committee, but his hysterical turn in “The Royal Nonesuch" solidified the lengths to which Mr. Coffee is willing to go for a laugh.
The two actors selected to play Huck and Jim, Mack Shirilla and Alvin Crawford, respectively, are polar opposites with regard to looks and vocals. While that may seem like an elementary statement in a show where we’re dealing with a white teen and a slave, the differences between them onstage were what made them a matched pair. Mr. Shirilla personified Huck’s playful naivety, but also his evolving sense of right and wrong. His effortless tenor voice was appropriately juvenile with very little vibrato, though it wasn’t nasal or cartoony. If his lines seemed rushed at times and slightly hard to understand, any difficulties played right into what was likely natural for his character. Mr. Crawford, with his wonderful height and mature build, struck an imposing physical contrast to Huck while maintaining a sweet spirit full of thanks and genuine gratitude for his young friend and champion. Mr. Crawford’s Julliard-trained baritone was the absolute best choice for Jim, as well as the perfect complement to Mr. Shirilla.
Big River runs for a limited engagement at Casa Manaña. Don’t miss your opportunity to see and hear this talented company of performers.
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