‘Big River’ confronts big ideas on small stage

September 18, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Huck, played by Randy Scholz (left), and Jim, played by Rodney Hicks, float down the Mississippi River on a raft in a scene from the Village Theatre musical ‘Big River.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

In Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn resisted attempts to “sivilize” him, but nonetheless, the character cleans up nicely for the stage.

Huck’s adventure on the Mississippi River is re-engineered in “Big River” — a stage adaptation at Village Theatre. The musical opens the 2012-13 season at the downtown Issaquah playhouse.

Overall, despite occasional shortcomings, “Big River” is a spirited romp propelled downriver by a dynamic cast and a score rooted in radio-ready country and pop.

The towheaded Randy Scholz, 26, seems at least a decade younger onstage, and creates a credible Huck, a prankster coming of age at the same time as a burgeoning nation.

Jim is a titan of literature and the moral core of “Big River” — and Rodney Hicks is majestic in the role. Jim, determined to escape from slavery in Missouri, is embodied with dignity and grace by Hicks.

Both actors deserve ample credit for adding flesh to the characters, to compensate for the elements lost in translation from “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “Big River.”

The supporting cast adds color and texture to the characters Twain sprinkled along the Mississippi.

John David Scott talks a mile a minute as the other troublemaker in Twain’s realm, Tom Sawyer. David Anthony Lewis is appropriately feral (and enjoyable) as Huck’s good-for-nothin’ father, Pap.

“Big River” does not whitewash less-savory elements of 19th-century life, and the N-word is used in abundance throughout the musical.

The production simultaneously enshrines the genteel and pious Missourians and pokes a stick at their godfearing, slave-owning hypocrisy.

The plot trims some action in the transition from page to stage, but some material left in “Big River” constricts the pace and detours the action from the escape down the Mississippi.

Late in the opening act and after intermission, Huck and Jim spend too much time in the company of hucksters known as the Duke and the King. Greg McCormick, as the Duke, and Richard Gray, as the King, shine as rip-off royals, but the abrupt shift in the plot causes Huck and Jim to fade into the background.

The action eventually reconnects the audience to Huck and Jim in time for the song “Worlds Apart” — a meditation on race and the differences between the protagonists.

“I see the same skies through brown eyes that you see through blue,” Jim sings. “But we’re worlds apart.”

The score from the late songwriter Roger “King of the Road” Miller sometimes soars and sometimes slogs.

If you go

‘Big River’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through Oct. 21
  • Showtimes vary
  • $22 to $63
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

Highlights include a paean to the Mississippi titled “River in the Rain” and a clever broadside against authority titled “Guv’ment” — delivered by Huck’s mangy father.

The songs of slaves offer the most forceful elements in the “Big River” songbook. “The Crossing” — a number performed by shackled slaves aboard a boat plying the Mississippi — is a haunting reminder of uglier chapters from history.

Other numbers miss the mark and, overall, the score lacks consistency.

The ballad “You Oughta Be Here with Me” sounds lifted from country radio and out of place in a Broadway-style show. (Indeed, country legend George Jones recorded a version for a long-ago album.)

Resident Music Director Tim Symons deserves props for shuffling musicians from the orchestra pit to the stage. The decision to station a banjo-picking Mark Twain onstage is a smart framing device.

The set, meant to evoke expanse, instead feels cluttered, as though the mighty Mississippi has been confined to a trickle.

“Big River” is envisioned as a serious sojourn through a Great American Novel, but the musical feels more like a ride through Disney World’s Frontierland.

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