Musical an enjoyable look at Huck Finn tale

Sunday, May 16, 1993

Sailing down the Mississipi River on a raft is an exciting adventure for a 12-year-old boy.

But Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its musical adaptation, Big River by William Hauptman with music by Roger Miller, are more than a kid's eye view of life in the pre-Civil War Deep South.

Any story which deals with the question of slavery, the treatment of human beings as chattels to be sold at will and the hypocrisy of the pro-slavery "Christian" moralists of the time raises serious questions.

One of Twain's themes in his classic novel is how Huck learns a real sense of justice and morality through his friendship with the runaway slave, Jim.

While there is still room for humor and hyperbole as Huck and Jim sail in and out of the lives of the people they meet on the road to freedom, the serious thread remains central to both novel and musical.

This despite the opening scene of Big River in which the audience is warned that anyone taking the story too seriously will be shot by the order of Mark Twain.

Directed by Michael gareau, the Orpheus Operatic Society production of Big River, which opened Friday, is bright and lively, but its heavy emphasis on the light side of the tale frequently means that the other dimension is submerged.

Choregorapher Aileen Szkwarek also concentrates on the suspender-snapping, hoedown end of the dance scale, though there is one modern dance solo beautifully rendered by Cindy Harrison.

Miller's score is delightful, offering Broadway, country and gospel music in a splendid and often overlapphing combination.

Such songs as Muddy Water, Waiting for the Light to Shine and Free at Last stay with you long after the show is over.

And Orpheus performers, under the musical direction of Marlene Hudson, are in good voice throughout.

In addition to excellent singing from the leads, Jennie Esnard's moving solo in The Crossing and Anne Montgomery's section of Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven are particularly well sung.

Frank Duern is a bubbly Huck, managing a wide-eyed youthfulness and joy in life as he struggles with society's views of right and wrong and his feeling for Jim.

He could be even more effective if he varied his movements a little more but he is generally believable and his direct conversations with the audience as he recounts the story work very well.

Robert McColman's Jim is a good counterpoint to Duern's Huck, more knowing of the evils of the world and less optimistic that they will reach the free states and a better life.

He is the once character who concentrates on the more serious side of the story.

Duern's and McColman's voices also blend well. Their River in the Rain duet is one of the most memorable moments of the show.

Barry Caiger has plenty of fun with his role as the villainous Duke and Peter Kealey delivers a sparkling performance as Huck's over-imaginative friend, Tom Sawyer.

The simple set design by Nancy Solman is most effective, particularly the huge raft which Huck and Jim punt around the stage on their long journey down river.

In all, this production of Big River, one of the best ensemble presentations that I have seen at Orpheus, provides an enjoyable, lighthearted look at the adventures of Huckleberry Finn.