Goodspeed’s BIG RIVER – Let’s Hear It for the Bad Boys!

By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

Once you get beyond the delight of oogling the adorable Will Reynolds as Huckleberry Finn and the huggable Jeremy Jordan as Tom Sawyer, you can settle down and enjoy an evening of great musical theater.

Big River, the Tony Award-winning musical has been revived at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, right on the big Connecticut River. It has been lovingly and skillfully directed by Rob Ruggiero, three-time winner of the Connecticut Critics Circle award for “Best Director of a Musical.”

This show, playing until November 30th, is a tuneful and lively slice of Americana. The action takes place in the 1840’s and the ‘bad boys’ are Huck’s gang. Although they talk a good game of being bad, they are simply innocents rebelling against the sanctimony and bigotry of some adults in their lives.  Sound familiar?

The music and lyrics, by Roger Miller, will please theatergoers of all musical tastes – there are beautiful ballads, lively banjo solos, soulful spirituals, vaudeville duos, country/western choruses, and boffo Broadway numbers.

Scenic designer Michael Schweikardt has taken design elements of the 1876 Goodspeed Opera House and has extended them right onto the stage where actors exits through 19th century-style doors flanked by gas lamps. It all appears to be part of the original stage, but, in fact, is part of the scenery.  Massive rough-hewn wooden doors at the back of the stage open during rafting scenes to reveal a wide expanse of the Mississippi River.

Costumes by Alejo Vietti are more authentic than in most musical productions. They appear to have been lovingly stored in a warehouse somewhere in Kentucky or Arkansas since the mid 1800’s, and then taken out of storage especially for this show.  The combination of scenic expertise and authentic-looking costumes gave us a feeling that we had been transported back to another time, watching action that actually took place more than 150 years ago.

The subtlety of the lighting designed by John Lasiter does not compete with the actors, but rather enhances them.  Whether during daytime or at night, in rain or in sunshine, the light on the river and its inhabitants seems natural and real.  One could almost think that the light just happened, rather than having been expertly executed by a master designer.

Will Reynolds as Huck Finn and Russell Joel Brown as Jim are the heart and soul of the show.  Their presence dominates most of the rafting scenes, and they blend their beautiful voices in wonderful songs – River in the Rain, Muddy Water, and Worlds Apart are among the best.  Huck’s solo, and later reprise, Waitin’ for the Light to Shine is as uplifting as a Broadway showstopper can get.  Jim’s brilliantly performed Free At Last joyfully gives voice to his long fought quest for freedom.

The tragedy of slavery and the friendship of the boy, Huck, for his companion, Jim, is the underlying theme of the story.  The Crossing and How Best We Are, sung by Christine Lyons and A’Lisa D. Miles respectively, punctuate the heart-wrenching plight of life under slavery.  And can these women sing!

For those of us who despise name calling and blatant bigotry, the N-word epithet is bandied about far too many times, but the use of it simply points out how destructive and shocking hatred can be.

For comic relief, Jeremy Jordon, as Tom Sawyer, lights up the stage with his hilarious ‘pig song’- Hand for the Hog.  (Jeremy received a Connecticut Critics Circle nomination earlier this year for his part in the Hartford TheaterWorks’ play The Little Dog Laughed.  We enthusiastically voted for him.)

In a rant against the wasteful ways of the government, Kenneth Cavett as Pap Finn sings Guv’ment, a tune which could easily be applied to the current administration in Washington.  The audience agreed with the character’s sentiments with gales of laughter at many of the lyrics.

The King and The Duke, a couple of shady grifters, are delightfully brought to life by Ed Dixon and John Bolton.  They are most memorable in a song-and-dance vaudeville-style number, When The Sun Goes Down In The South.

The cast, made up of more than twenty talented and accomplished professional actors/singers/dancers is accompanied onstage by comedic actor David M. Lutken, who plays one mean guitar, banjo and autoharp – all rolled into one intriguing instrument.

Goodspeed’s brilliant orchestra conducted by Michael O’Flaherty and featuring violinist Karin Fagerburg caresses the singers in a lovely embrace of melodic warmth.

The Mark Twain stories, adapted for the stage by William Hauptman, are told to the audience in a folksy charming way by Huck, who spins his adventurous tale, directly addressing the audience, from the opening until the final scene.

BIG RIVER deserves its revival at the Goodspeed Opera House because it’s a perennial favorite and its subtext about racism is especially timely today. Don’t miss it!

XXX

©2008. Critics On The Aisle. All rights reserved.

The authors are members of the Connecticut Critics Circle. www.ctcritics.org

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