Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Big River"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann

"Big River"

A Review by Lynn Heinemann

(Seen September 17, 2011)

It's the original bromance: the relationship between Huck Finn (Jordan Ahnquist) and the runaway slave Jim (De'Lon Grant). Their raft may not be a cruise ship, but it's very much a love boat.

The Lyric Stage production of "Big River," the adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Roger Miller (music and lyrics) and William Hauptman (book) clearly depicts the growing fondness and comradeship of the raft mates, who were thrown together by circumstance and coincidence.

Jim's goal is to flee to free territory and make enough money to buy back his family. Huck has staged his own death in order to escape his abusive father as well as the civilizing influences of the women who had taken him in.

"It was pretty tough livin' in that house, seeing as they was so good and decent in their ways," Huck tells us, as he chafes at the Widow Douglas' and Miss Wilson's insistence that he learn his lessons and commit to prayers.

Against a wooden backdrop evocative of the whitewashed fences that Twain featured in his Tom Sawyer story, projections (designed by Seaghan McKay) depict a map of the Mississippi River route that Huck and Jim traverse on their raft, images of the rooms where the action takes place, and most effectively, the moving image of the river itself as they drift along.

The rough-hewn planked set, by Janie E. Howland, allows the raft to be disconnected from the "shore," for various rooms to be rolled out from behind the picket fence (and rolled back again), and for a trap door of a full-sized grave to be opened up for a funeral.

But it's the 21 actors who really bring the story to life, and director Spiro Veloudos manages his large cast in a smallish space without ever diminishing the action or the scope of their many roles.

Scene stealers in smaller roles include Paul D. Farwell, as Huck's opportunistic, booze-guzzling and dangerous Pap, an early Tea Party enthusiast who musically criticizes the "dad gum guv'ment, You sorry sons-of-bitches, You got your damn hands in every pocket of my britches."

Kami Rushell Smith's vocals soar in the plaintive, heartbreaking "The Crossing" as chained slaves are led back to captivity.

Possibly the most efficient scene-stealer is Nicholas Lee, as a delightfully daft fiddler, singing the praises of "Arkansas"

In meatier roles, Peter A. Carey and J.T. Turner portray charlatans who use Huck and Jim, not only to escape their initial predicament, but also to perpetrate more frauds down the river. Carey, who's declared himself a Duke, offers a fractured Shakespearean monologue that melds most of the bard's most famous lines into one ferociously iambic pentametered speech. And J.T. Turner, who one-ups the "Duke" by proclaiming himself the former "Dolphin" and now King of France, attempts a Juliet who intones "Romeo, Romeo" as if calling for a dog, and portrays the "Royal Nonesuch," their sideshow freak who has "one big breast in the middle of her chest and an eye in the middle of her nose."

But the heart of the musical is the relationship between Huck and Jim, and Huck's struggle with what society has taught him (that Jim is property and less than a man) and what he learns about true freedom and loyalty.

In fact, Huck defies his cultural upbringing, determined to face eternal damnation and hell, in order to free Jim.

"You're the only white person who's kept his word," Jim tells Huck, even as they recognize their differences while striving to find equal ground. "I see the friendship in your eyes that you see in mine. But we're worlds apart, worlds apart," they sing to each other.

De'Lon Grant exudes a quiet strength and dignity as Jim, the man who's yearning to reunite with his family and Jordan Ahnquist's Huck, the boy who never really had a family, slowly modulates Huck's boyish exuberance as he gains awareness of integrity and selfhood.

As they huddle together under a blanket during a storm singing "River in the Rain," it's evident how much their friendship is growing. In a very warm and familiar gesture, Jim tousles Huck's hair, an action that would not play well if they were not starting to see each other as equals.

They really are a lovely couple.

"Big River" (2 September - 8 October)
@ 140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide