Big River, book by William Hautman, Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller, based on the novel "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Directed and choreographed by Tim Howard. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Anthony Ingargiola and Reji Woods on the Mississippi; photo:
"Two worlds together are better than just one."
Drew Davidson and Anthony Ingargiola; photo:
Huckleberry Finn sets off on a raft to help his friend Jim, a runaway slave in the late 1840s, get to safety in a free state. Instead, just the way things always happen with Huck, he ends up in the heart of the slavetrade and has to find a way out of a predicament he never anticipated. Along the way he has adventures that only a boy could find thrilling with strange people and strange places and in the end he is saved by the even more foolish antics of his friend Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain constructed this tale, a sequel to the Sawyer adventures, and began a three century career for the unfortunate youngster. In the mid 1980s country singer/songwriter of light music Roger Miller - King of the Road guy - prepared a stage version of the novel and wound up writing a moving hit show that helped establish a number of theatrical and movie careers including those of John Goodman, Ron Richardson and Evalyn Baron.
Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont, is presenting a marvelous revival of this musical and it is well worth a trip to southern Vermont to catch this show while you can. Unapologetically they are presenting the show as written back in 1985 before we had to watch ourselves with the racial slurs. Their feeling is that Twain wrote this way and Miller wrote this way and the language including the "N" word is relevant to the time presented. They are hoping that the public will react favorably, but they are open to criticism on this and here is mine: Bravo, folks. You took the brave and correct step and the words are not offensive, they are part of the tapestry of the time.
The cast of this show does a fabulous job with their characters and their lingo. Gary Allan Poe is a perfect Mark Twain and his turn as Pap Finn is very, very good. It doesn't have the hardest edge, but it still tells it like it is and makes Twain's points in Miller's song "Guv'ment." Drew Davidson is a formidable Judge Thatcher and a frightening Silas Phelps and Christine Decker as Mrs. Phelps is the perfect picture of confusion. Decker also plays Widow Douglas and starts off the singing nicely and is "Strange Woman" in a nicely strange way. You have to watch her rhythmic waggling to understand what I mean.
John Fitzpatrick is a hoydenish Tom Sawyer and Matt Grasso is a delightful "Young Fool" singing "Arkansas." Sarah Solari does a very nice job with Mary Jane giving her all to her song "You Oughta Be Here With Me."
The villainous duo, The King and The Duke, are played with style and class by Peter Langstaff and Richard Howe. These two make delicious mansters (that's male monsters) who clearly deserve the tarring and feathering that lies in store for them. The rest of the company, including the four piece band (with additional help from other cast members) under the musical direction of John Foley, are all wonderful.
Still, the story is centered on Huck and Jim, played in this production by Anthony Ingargiola and Reji Woods. Ingargiola has the face (wrapped in curls) of a Rubens cupid and the body of a Rose O'Neil kewpie doll. He dances and sings and acts up a storm and he is emotionally moving when Huck needs to be. Woods sings with power and acts with the same major element presenting a picture of humanity that is guaranteed to move even the toughest critic in the house. When the two duet on the song "Worlds Apart" it will literally break your heart.
A funny, daring musical show, BIG RIVER is a winner in its current incarnation. Roger Miller is clearly the king of more than one sort of road as he leads us down the Mark Twain highway to tolerance and understanding and laughter, all rolled into one. There's an opportunity here to be entertained and enlightened and even challenged a bit in two or so hours of musical magic as brilliantly directed by Tim Howard. His design team for this show use the Oldcastle space wonderfully: Dan Courchaine, scenic artist, Roy Hamlin and Ursula McCarty, costume designers and Scott Cally, lighting designer.
In the words of Roger Miller, with a bow to Mark Twain, if you're waitin' for the sun to shine, you'll find plenty of it at Oldcastle's production of BIG RIVER.
Ensemble; photo: Scott Cally
Anthony Ingargiola and Reji Woods; photo:
Big River plays at the Oldcastle Theatre, at 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont through July 24. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.