By Barry Reszel
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the quintessential great American novel.
A superior sequel to 1876’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, published in 1884, it is widely considered be Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Employing humor to make his readers consider issues of friendship, justice and morality, Twain’s meandering tale follows the river trip of Huck Finn and runaway slave Jim down the mighty Mississippi. Along the way, readers are treated to brilliant descriptions of the river and a motley gang of people who live alongside through a series of humorous and insightful episodes.
Just more than 100 years after it’s publication Huck Finn made it to Broadway in the form of William Hauptman‘s musical adaptation, Big River. In it, Huck narrates his coming-of-age adventure as the young sociologist-in-training, learning about the people he meets. With catchy music and lyrics by Roger Miller (“King of the Road”) the Broadway production earned seven 1985 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
In its current local staging at Theatre at the Center, Director/Choreographer Linda Fortunato lovingly guides James Romney as Huck and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Jim on their journeys, internal and external.
The two leads are supported by a terrific supporting cast who portray an assortment of folksy characters and, most importantly, knock the terrific songbook out of the park.
Musical highlights, played by the terrific onstage band including many of the actors and expertly led by William Underwood, include the upbeat, “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven;” a homespun political statement, “Guv’ment;” the signature duet, “Muddy Water;” the tender, “River in the Rain;” the comedic, “The Royal Nonesuch;” the riveting, “Free at Last;” and the lovely, “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go,” among others.
Indeed, the music is a huge asset to a plot that reads better than it displays on stage. Which is not to say Big River doesn’t deserve its accolades. It simply would benefit from some creative editing of scenes that go on too long and characters with too much stage time during which the stories of Huck and Jim aren’t front and center.
But that said, Fortunato’s cast is stellar. Romney is a terrific storyteller who assumes the iconic character of Huck with ease and good humor, as shown in his rendition of “I, Huckleberry, Me.” And as Jim, the Chicagoland stage veteran Butler-Duplessis shows strength, resolve and gratitude for his life’s blessings, all the while focused on the ultimate freedom from slavery for his wife and children. His “Free at Last” is an absolute showstopper, in itself worth the price of admission.
Additional cast highlights include the terrific Liz Chidester, Camille Robinson and Johanna McKenzie Miller in numerous roles; Caitlin Cavannaugh as Mary Jane; and Kyle Quinlivan as an energetic Tom Sawyer. Also, Jason Richards as the Duke and and Brett Tuomi as the King, are a standout comedy duo even as their scenes drag on a bit.
Scenic Designer Ann Davis adorns every smidgen of TATC’s large thrust stage to set the audience on the banks of the Mississippi River. Brenda Winstead (costumes) and Kevin Barthel (hair/wigs) set the actors in the 1800s.
Well directed and well sung, TATC’s Big River is an early fall treat.
Theatre at the Center presents “Big River” through October 15 at 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.