Play: “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Group: Stages St. Louis
Venue: Robert Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through June 27
Tickets: $49; contact 314-821-2407 or www.stagesstlouis.org
Story: Mark Twain’s classic American novel traces the journey of young Huckleberry Finn from St. Petersburg, Missouri down the Mississippi River as he attempts to help his friend, the runaway slave Jim, to freedom in the northern state of Ohio. Missing the point in Cairo, Illinois where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River, Huck and Jim sail down the Mississippi into Arkansas, encountering townsfolk and scoundrels alike on their journey to freedom.
Highlights: Stages St. Louis opens its 2010 season with Roger Miller’s paean to Twain’s perennially popular Great American Novel in this year that marks the centennial of Twain’s death, the 175th anniversary of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” First produced on Broadway in 1985, “Big River” features music and lyrics by the late pop recording star Miller as well as a book by William Hauptman adapted from the novel by Missouri’s favorite literary son.
Other Info: Stages’ adaptation of the multiple-Tony Award winning musical actually succeeds more as a history lesson than a show. To his credit, director Michael Hamilton doesn’t shy away from the stark language of the times, particularly the ‘n’ word used both maliciously and matter-of-factly in describing slaves in the Old South. Indeed, Hauptman’s adaptation retains a colorful and often nasty brigade of rogues, roustabouts and con artists, from Huck’s wastrel father to Tom Sawyer’s loutish uncle to a nefarious pair of brigands, the King and the Duke, who commandeer Huck and Jim’s raft and threaten to sell Jim into slavery while simultaneously bilking an Arkansas family out of its inheritance.
Hamilton keeps the show moving along for the most part, and benefits from strong performances by the two leads. Adam Shonkwiler is highly believable as the fiercely independent Huck, capably discoursing Huck’s homespun philosophy and ruminations upon human nature with a deft and convincing manner. As Jim, Ken Robinson displays a wonderfully human touch, showing the runaway slave’s determination to win freedom not only for himself but also for his wife and children. Musically, Robinson and Shonkwiler blend nicely on the show’s best ballad, “Worlds Apart,” as well as another appealing number, “River in the Rain.”
There’s solid supporting work by David Schmittou and Darrel Blackburn as the scheming con man, the Duke, and his insidious partner, the King, respectively. Zoe Vonder Haar and Lynn Humphrey play the genial Miss Watson and Widow Douglas, respectively, while Richard Pruitt is excellent as Huck’s alcoholic, menacing father. Ben Nordstrom has fun as a “Young Fool” who belts out the silly tune, “Arkansas,” while Larry Mabrey oversees the goings-on in his white suit and mane of wild white hair as Twain himself.
Justin Bowen is an oddly goofy Tom Sawyer, Alexis Kinney is Becky Thatcher and John Flack is the kindly Judge Thatcher as well as Tom’s Uncle Silas Phelps, with Vonder Haar as Silas’ wife Sally. Shaun Sheley, Darin Wood and Lisa M. Ramey effectively play a number of smaller roles.
James Wolk’s rustic, two-tiered set evokes the period, accentuated by a handsome raft that glides along on wheels to give the effect of moving down the river, allowing multiple scene changes from river to land in smooth fashion. Dana Lewis provides some pleasing choreography on a number of the show’s tunes, and Lou Brid’s costumes satisfactorily represent the era. Matthew McCarthy’s lighting is most effective on the nocturnal river scenes with Huck and Jim gazing into the starry sky. Lisa Campbell Albert provides the smooth musical direction with an orchestral design by Stuart Elmore that plays up the score’s bluegrass and country influences.
“Big River” lacks the usual flair of a Stages production, but offers an appealing study of 19th century American history in its presentation.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.