Big River includes dozens of characters
The 1985 musical, based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, follows Huck and his companion Jim as they search for freedom on the Mississippi River. Huck escapes an abusive father. Jim escapes the bonds of slavery. Worlds apart, they discover compassion and connection along the way.
The musical, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, includes dozens of characters, two dozen songs, and a set that stretches like the expansive river. So, how does a boutique theater like New Village Arts bring the epic to life? Economically.
Christopher Scott Murillo’s set design shines as a silent star. Not an inch of space, fabric, or wood goes unused. House walls painted as a nighttime river frame the stage. Stuffed muslin creates the fish the travelers eat and the pig Huck sacrifices to stage his death and escape his Pap. Wood planks form a fence, the moon, and the travelers' raft. Lighting designer Curtis Mueller transforms a black stage floor into a moving river with twinkling flecks of amber.
The set is intimate, so it felt flat when Jim (Benjamin Roy) and Huck (Reed Lievers) sing “Worlds Apart” without interacting. The lyrics highlight connection despite social restriction, yet the actors stare into the distance — an awkward choice that dampens chemistry, though doesn’t sink it.
The energy of "The Boys" is infectious.
Lievers gives a spirited performance befitting Huck’s age. Roy booms a low tenor and a measured delivery that showcases Jim’s prudence. Director/choreographer Colleen Kollar Smith strikes a delicate balance between the emotional highs and lows in a story of opposites. She combines dance and a bit of tumbling to show the child’s play of Huck’s world. When Tom Sawyer (Zachary Scot Wolfe) and his gang perform “The Boys,” a raucous dance number backed by an onstage band, the energy of the lively reel is infectious.
David Kirk Grant, Tony Houck, and Morgan Carberry transition from onstage band to multiple characters.
Actors/singers/musicians David Kirk Grant, Morgan Carberry, and Tony Houck transition from onstage band to multiple characters without missing a beat, literally. Costume designer Kate Bishop’s use of layered garments and wigs makes for efficient costume changes.
Manny and Melissa Fernandes deliver comical performances as con artists who crash Huck and Jim’s getaway. The “Duchess” and her sidekick get big laughs with “The Royal Nonesuch.”
The choice to switch the Duchess’ gender (a “Duke” in the original) seems an economical casting choice, but only highlights the antiquated use of the “N-word,” used liberally throughout the script. Bending the rules to fit the 21st Century in one regard and not another is uncomfortable, but then again, so is the story.
When Alice (Yvonne) and Mary Jane (Natasha Partnoy) sing “You Oughta Be Here with Me,” the pain that connects us across social divides is most resonant as the women grieve the loss of beloveds...one enslaved, one free.