Saturday, June 23, 2007

Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mercury Summer Stock’s ‘BIG RIVER’ gets a 7 out of 10 from my side-kick kid reviewers

Remember the scenes in the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies when they get a group of kids together to do a play? The results, because of their enthusiasm and dedication, were fun, amateur productions. That’s the feeling one gets from Mercury Summer Stock, which is now performing ‘BIG RIVER, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.’

Mercury has as its goal “providing local performers opportunities to work on and off stage during the summer season.” Though they are listed as a “professional based” theatre, in their present production only one equity member is listed. It matters not. If you go in expecting to see young performers who really love the theatre, putting out full-effort, the evening is fulfilling.

Based on Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel, ‘THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN,’ the show features music in bluegrass and country styles, in keeping with the setting and era of the novel. The Broadway production, which won a Tony for Best Musical, ran for over 1,000 performances.

The Broadway production opened on April 25, 1985 and ran for 1,005 performances. A revival opened in the Big Apple in 2003. It was staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre, and about half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, were played by deaf or hard-of hearing performers. Having seen the production, I can assure you it was both entertaining and enlightening.

The story follows Huck Finn as he helps Jim, a slave, escape to the north to gain his freedom. Along the way, they encounter a fake duke and king, slave hunters, and are participants in a stolen money scheme, a plot to free Jim after he is captured, and Huck’s first love affair. All in all, the script and music (“Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain,” “Worlds Apart,” and “Free at Last”) are both moving and of high quality.

Mercury’s production is under the deft direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, a 2001 graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College's Music Theatre Department. His directing credentials are impressive for one so young. His youthful enthusiasm has been infused into the cast, who appears to be having a great time on stage.

The production’s accomplishments are even more impressive when one realizes that they are performing on a tiny stage, with no fly gallery or wing space, and a very limited budget. This causes all sorts of complications of a show that requires a number of sets, set changes and extensive costumes.

The production is uneven, but that’s to be expected with such a young cast. Brian Marshall, the theatre’s Managing Artistic Director, makes for a fine Huck. Though appearing a little too old for the role, he has a nice voice and a good grasp of the nuances of the part.

Charles Walker (Jim) has fine vocal and acting abilities. His rendition of “Free At Last” was powerful. Daniel Marshall (Duke), the only listed union performer, is delightful as the overblown Shakespearean actor, as is Arthur Wise (King) as his scheming sidekick. Corey Joseph Mach is Tom Sawyer personified. Some of the singing and dancing by those in minor roles was a little ragged, but the vocal blends, especially of the boys chorus, were excellent.

As is the case when a show has youth attendance potential, I took my grandsons Alex (11) and Noah Berko (10) to see the production. On their grading scale, they gave the production a 7 out of 10. Alex summarized, “It was a good play, but I didn’t understand all of the jokes, but lots of it was funny. (Sidenote: as a fifth grader he hasn’t quite been exposed to Shakespeare and southern folk humor.) The singing was really good and I liked Charles Walker who played Jim, the African American slave. I don’t think people should own slaves, it’s dumb!” Noah agreed. He also expressed concern because the set wasn’t realistic enough to portray the raft moving down the river. They both liked Huck and Tom. Alex added, “They used the “N” word a lot and they swore 26 times.” Noah stated, “That might offend some people.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BIG RIVER is a well-conceived script. In the hands of Pierre Brault and his Mercury youthful, enthusiastic cast, it gets an uneven but pleasing production. It’s worth a “go see.”