If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan




About thirty minutes into “Big River”, the Goodspeed Opera House’s current revival of the Tony Award winning musical about Huckleberry Finn, the clapboard doors of Michael Schweikardt’s handsome set open to reveal a panoramic view of the Mississippi River as Huck and the runaway slave Jim sing the exuberant “Muddy Water” while drifting to freedom on their raft. It’s the dramatic highlight of this lovely production directed by Rob Ruggiero who has been blessed with an expert company of actors and designers. Mr. Ruggiero is also responsible for blowing the dust off Goodspeed’s revival of “1776” last fall. They clearly should keep this man around.

The cast of Big River, which is currently playing at Goodspeed Opera House.
Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Based on Mark Twain’s classic novel and adapted for the stage by William Hauptman with music/lyrics by Roger Miller, “Big River” is an old-fashioned, immensely satisfying Broadway musical. It no doubt loses some of its grandeur on the intimate Goodspeed stage, but the heart and soul of this true family show has remained intact in Mr. Ruggiero’s respectful and energized production. Solidly anchoring the proceedings is Will Reynolds’ boyish, engaging Huck and Russell Joel Brown’s strong and sensitive Jim. The men play off each other with a relaxed jocularity that speaks of a long friendship. Their voices also blend seamlessly for a series of songs including the reflective “River in the Rain”, a moving “Worlds Apart” and the powerful “Free at Last”. They are given excellent support by Ed Dixon and John Bolton as a comical pair of conmen who are both funny and appropriately threatening. Their rambunctious singing of “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” caps the first act on a joyful note of celebration.

Alejo Vietti’s period costumes perfectly define the class structure evident in the late 1840s and Music Director Michael O’Flaherty has given Roger Miller’s pleasing country pop/rock score everything it deserves. If, in the second act, the musical never quite hits the highs of “Muddy Water” again, it may be because Mr. Hauptman has been almost slavishly devoted to Twain’s story when more pruning of the novel could have benefited the pace. This is never a detriment, however, to this, the Goodspeed’s finest production since, well, “1776”!

“Big River” continues at Goodspeed in East Haddam, Connecticut through November 30th. Tickets may be purchased by calling 860.873.8668 or on the website: www.goodspeed.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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