Orpheus's 1993 production of Big River

Review on "In Town and Out", CBC FM 91.5, Saturday, May 15, 1993
by ALEX MACDONALD, Interviewed by ROB CLIPPERTON


RC: What did you think of Big River, Alex?

AM: Are you ready for this?

RC: You liked it.

AM: I LOVED it. It was great!

RC: Really?

AM: It was excellently produced and it's a lot of fun, so grab your friend, grab your spouse, your wife, your dog, your kids, your grandparents. Heck, take the whole family. Get in the car. Go see it. I think it's the best Orpheus has ever produced and I KNOW it's the best one I've ever seen.

RC: And you've seen a lot of them.

AM: I've seen a lot of them. Now, while you're recovering from that overwhelmingly positive review, I'll fill you in on a little bit of background.

Big River was adapted, obviously, from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by a man named William Hauptman and the award winning score was written by Roger Miller, best known for his King of the Road song. And WHAT music! The song we just heard isn't quite the way the music is on stage. It's not quite as modern. It still has more of a stage sound to it. It's upbeat. It's catchy and it certainly does not stay in the same genre. It crosses from broadway to country to gospel, back again, and then, sometimes, they mix them up in the same song. And I'm happy to say that Orpheus has some very impressive voices to do this music justice.

It's directed this time by Michael Gareau, who has been with Orpheus for a number of years and who you may remember as the director of Sound of Music a couple of years ago. He's chosen to play this show very big and it works tremendously well. As his right hand woman, he has Marlene Hudson as the musical director and she's done an excellent job with a veritable cornucopia of talent and music.

Now, the story, set in the 1840's is familiar to most of us. A young boy tries to help a runaway slave on a journey down the Mississippi River. Their trip is full of adventures as they encounter both the challenges of the river and several fascinating Mark Twain characters. As the story unfolds, it gives a poignant social commentary on the slavery issue in the U.S. and it highlights the close minded, Bible thumping southern society that is frightening in its black and white vision.

Now, here's the question of the hour, Rob. When was Big River produced - approximately? A decade. Take a guess.

RC: It's been within the last ten years. Five years?

AM: Oh, darn! You're right.

RC: I knew it was a fairly new musical.

AM: I was hoping to catch you. It's new. It's very new. 1984. Opened on Broadway in '85 and that year won 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. And in this little piece of trivia we have, I think, one of the reasons for its current success. It seems that modern musicals do not take the conventions of musicals too seriously. There's even a kind of irrelevence in their tongue-in-cheek approach.

What works in Big River is the narrative. Huckleberry Finn tells the audience the story - literally. Some of the funniest moments occur when he addresses the audience directly in a modern day Shakespearean aside. And the audience LOVES it. They get right into it. There's this person just standing there talking directly to them and they love it.

Without doubt, the strongest part of the whole show is the incredibly talented cast. The show rides mainly on the shoulders of Huck Finn, played by Frank Duern, and Jim, played by Robert McColman. And Orpheus has done a superb job of casting these two.

Frank Duern, as Huck, plays a terrific oversized kid. I was concerned at the beginning that he wouldn't be credible because of his age, but I needn't have worried. He manages the youthfulness very nicely without getting cute, coy or annoying and he also has a mischievous comic streak that works very well in the role. And the package is complete with a beautiful voice. When he and Robert McColman sing together, the voices balance each other and it is truly beautiful music.

McColman plays the serious role of the runaway slave and I think it's the first time that I haven't seen him in a lighter, toe tapping role. He does exceptionally well with the dramatic scenes, which leads me to suspect that he's actually a closet serious actor hiding out in the world of musical theatre. But, it's just a hunch.

Now, both he and Duern manage to create a wonderful realism on the raft and on the river bank and it's not long before you, too, start to see the imaginary frogs and the river bank and all the creatures and life that exist and the sunsets and the fish - it's great!

Another performance - Peter Kealey plays Tom Sawyer. Good performance. He's Huck's overimaginative friend, if you have forgotten the story. He's a joy to watch and he obviously has a lot of fun on stage.

There's also plenty of talent backstage. Aileen Szkwarek has done excellent choreography, from a hoe-down in the opening scene to shades of a kind of a modern dance number featuring Cindy Harrison. Now, I haven't seen her at an Orpheus show for a while and I'm very glad she's back. She's amazing! She's as strong as ever, if not better.

The sets, designed by Nancy Solman, are colourful and lively and have just enough fantasy in them to blend in with that tale telling element.

And the piece de resistance is definitely the raft. It worked very well, evoking the feeling of the river and it moves just well enough to be able to be controlled as it floated along the stage by Huck and Jim with barge poles. They push it and it's fantastic!

The woods that are there were created - they're very three dimensional and they have many areas that you don't expect people to appear and disappear.

There was also a beautiful sky backdrop that changed from sunset to daybreak and daybreak to sunset on the river. The lighting design by David Magladry was very creative and pleasantly surprising... lots of effects of lanterns at night and sunsets on the river.

The ONLY drawback...

RC: Oh, there is one?

AM: Just... It's teensy. It's really small.

RC: There has to be one, just a little one.

AM: The second act drags a bit. And I'm not sure if it's the script or the direction, but it just doesn't click along like the first act. But that's it. And it certainly shouldn't stop you from going because it's an entertaining evening, let me tell you. In fact, there are moments so powerful and so dramatic that I was sure that I was watching a completely professional show at the O'Keefe Centre.

RC: Wow!

AM: Wow!

RC: Kudos for Orpheus. That's fabulous. I can just hear people running to their phones and dialing for tickets.

AM: Dial! Dial now!

RC: Dial before it's too late, or you may not have a chance.

AM: Exactly. It's fabulous.

RC: Would you see it again?

AM: I would.

RC: You would?

AM: You know what? I might just take Mom.

RC: Good for you. Good stuff. It sounds wonderful. [...] A great review for Orpheus from Alex MacDonald. Thank you very much.

AM: Thank you.

RC: I'll dial the number as soon as I get off the air, too.

AM: Take Peggy. Take the kids. It's great and it's a really good family show, too.

RC: Okay, Alex. Thank you very much.