“Big River,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan

--Irene Backalenick

What an appropriate setting for “Big River”—an open-air tent set among trees on a rolling hillside! Actually, it is not Mississippi River country, as suggested, but right in suburban New Canaan. The Summer Theatre of New Canaan is now staging the award-winning musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The legendary tale of Huck Finn’s journey on the Mississippi, set to music, has found a welcoming home.

The ambience is right, and director Melody Libonati, set designer Andrew Boyce, a cast of 31 players and 10 musicians make the most of it. They have joined forces to create miracles on a small stage, despite the theater’s limited facilities. The raft, the river, all come to life. The result is a light-hearted endearing, vibrant show.
If there is any criticism of this show, it is that it is too light-hearted. The darker nuances are missing. After all, this is a Mark Twain tale set in pre-Civil War America. Huck travels down the Mississippi on a raft with the slave Jim. Both are runaways--Huck from his abusive father and Jim from his owner. Jim, at any point, could be recaptured or sold. After all, it is Huck’s journey to self-discovery, as he rises above self-interest and the values which surround him.

Chris Libonati, as Huck, gives a stellar performance, creating an appealing boy all eager innocence. But where is the other side of Huck? Is this the son of a brutal, alcoholic father, a possible delinquent? Hardly. Nor does Steve Greenstein, who plays Huck’s “Pap” show real signs of villainy. This Pap is more comic than mean, more pitiful than threatening. In fact, there is not a villain in the pack, despite Huck’s precarious experiences along the river—as the two companions dodge the law and attempt to reach the slave-free North. It is only in one river scene, as three recaptured slaves pass by slowly and mournfully, that one feels Mark Twain’s deeper message.

Yet the cast delivers. Joshua W. Heggie, who plays the slave Jim, has a fine, rich voice and a commanding presence. Of particular note, also, are Edmund Bagnell as the irrepressible Tom Sawyer, and Drew Davidson and Lou Ursone as two con men.

And there is the glorious music of country singer/songwriter Roger Miller. It is one moving piece after another, performed impeccably by the company and the musicians. Doug Shankman’s choreography, Jeffery Whitsett’s lighting, and the costuming of Elizabeth Poindexters and Sarita Fellows are all right on target as well.

The show gets off to a rousing start, and keeps the pace throughout. It is a must-see show, a charmer, despite its aforementioned limitations. With more darkening to the palette, this particular “Big River” would have been the great show of the season.

This review appears in the Connecticut Post and on the web site: nytheaterscene.com

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