Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Big River"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

entire contents copyright 2005 by Tony Annicone

"Big River"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

Turtle Lane Playhouse's current production is Roger Miller's hit musical, "Big River" which is based on the Mark Twain novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The original show opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York on April 25, 1985 where it won 7 Tony Awards and ran for 1005 performances on Broadway. Twain's timeless classic sweeps us down the mighty Mississippi in the late 1840's where the irrepressible Huck Finn helps his friend Jim, a slave escape to freedom at the mouth of the Ohio River. Their adventures along the way are hilarious, suspenseful and heartwarming, bringing to life your favorite characters from the novel. Some of them include the Widow Douglas and her stern sister, Miss Watson, the uproarious King and Duke, who may not be as harmless as they seem, Huck's partner in crime, Tom Sawyer, and their rowdy gang of pals, Huck's drunken father, the sinister Pap Finn, the lovely Mary Jane Wilkes and her trusting family as well as many other unforgetable characters. Director Elaina Vrattos chooses 23 talented people to fill these roles and infuses them with high energy to maintain your interest all night long while music director Markus Hauck plays the keyboards and conducts his nine piece orchestra in playing this lush score and choreographer, Bruce Williams provides the energetic dance steps for the cast.

Elaina casts some new and fresh talent in this show and each and everyone one of them live up to her expectations with their acting and singing abilities. She has them utilize the stage wonderfully and the sets and lighting by John MacKenzie are breathtaking especially his twinkling stars lighting. Markus taught the cast the glorious score and the harmonies in the songs stand out in them while Bruce's choreography includes a soft shoe, a kick line among them. A word of praise for the numerous 1840's costumes to Richard Itczak who always creates splendid outfits for Turtle Lane's musicals and to hard working stage manager, Christopher Teauge who keeps the actors on their toes and the scene changes moving smoothly all night long.

The two leads in this show are fabulous. Adam Shenk, a voice and songwriting student at Berklee College of Music, gives a tour de force performance as Huck Finn. This young man is onstage almost the whole show, narrating and acting up a storm while singing and dancing wonderfully, too. Adam handles his multitude of lines as this young and naive character with ease and captures the essence of the Twain character perfectly. His solo numbers are "Waitin' For the Light to Shine" where he wants to know what to do to make his life better and "I, Huckleberry,Me" where he sings about his philosophy of life. Adam's high tenor voice blends perfectly in harmony in his duets with Joshua Heggie who is fantastic as Jim. Joshua makes his stage debut in this role and almost steals the show with his magnificent voice while capturing the power and grace of this noble slave. Their duets include "Muddy Water" where they sing about the power of the river, "River in the Rain" a touching ballad, where the fog moves in while the stars twinkle in the background and "World's Apart" a poignant, powerful ballad that shows even thought they might be different racially they still see things the same way. Joshua delivers a magnificent solo number and gives a powerful statement with "Free At Last" with the other slaves singing in the background. Bravo to both Adam and Joshua for excellent performances.

The supporting cast does topnotch work, too. Jonathan Popp, a recent Boston College graduate who majored in theatre and computer science, plays the trouble making, not too bright, Tom Sawyer. He brings a manic energy and wonderful comic timing to the role as he bounds about the stage, singing and dancing effortlessly. Jonathan plays this country bumpkin perfectly whether he is forming a highway man type of gang with the other boys in town in his song "The Boys" or whether he is singing about "Hand for the Hog" where Huck pretends to be dead by killing a hog. Two of the funniest characters in this show are the shady duo, the King and the Duke played by Robert Jacobs and Blake Siskavich. They pretend to be royalty when in fact they are conmen who just escaped from jail. Their comic antics and songs are a hoot. Their first number is a vaudeville type song called "When the Sun Goes Down in the South" which Adam joins in on the last verse and they finish it off with a kick line. The medicine show type song is called "The Royal Nonesuch" with Blake conning the townspeople out of their money by promising to show them a creature with one boob in the middle of its chest. Blake spouts Shakespearean dialogue at lightning speed while Robert also gets to play the evil Pap Finn who sings about the dadgum "Guv'ment" who tries to cheat you out of what is yours.(A song which holds true today with the Oil companies run by government officials robbing you blind.) One of the best vocalists in this show is Dee Crawford who plays an escaped slave who is caught and brought back in the song called "The Crossing" and as Alice, another slave, she sings "How Blest We Are". These two gospel numbers show Dee's power packed vocal prowess and her glorious voice will send chills up your spine with its beauty. The gorgeous Natasha Warloe who received her BFA from Tisch School of Theatre, shows off her lovely voice in "You Ought to Be Here with Me" which she sings about her father's death with her two sisters and in "Leavin's Not The Only Way to Go" which she sings a pretty ballad with Adam and Joshua. Kudos to all the cast members who make this a memorable and heart warming show for audiences of all ages to enjoy. So for a wonderful journey down the Mississippi River in the 1840's, be sure to catch "Big River" at Turtle Lane Playhouse. Tell them Tony sent you.

"Big River" ( 11 November - 30 December)
283 Melrose Street, Newton, MA
1 (617) 244-0169

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide