“Big River” Flows Smoothly Through the Crighton Theatre

It looks like yet another success for Crighton Theatre director, Larry Calhoun. His current production of “Big River” is a sure-fire winner for young and old, with its book by William Hauptman (adapted from Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), and its endlessly rich score, featuring the music and lyrics of the late Roger Miller. That music would be well served by Music Director/pianist, Adam Wiggins, and his fine River Rats band, with some notable fiddlin’ from Erin Daniels, and fine sound designs from Ron Davis..

Right off the bat, the merry Overture has the spirit of a country hoedown. A beautifully drawn backdrop (set design – Travis Bryant) places us squarely on the banks of the Mississippi River. Set in the 1840’s, we find ourselves in the Missouri home of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson (Barbara Polnick / Martha Davis) as the full company challenges devilish young Huck (Bille Bruley) with the joyful opening number, “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” (Huck, by the way, is not so sure he wants to go there!) The lovely 19th century costumes are another triumph for Crighton’s designer, Lynn Peverill. It was a special treat, in this production, to see Peverill’s very competent stage debut in the role of Aunt Sally, opposite Bill Torgan’s fine portrayal of Uncle Silas.

Tom Sawyer (Joey Lamont) leads his pals in the frisky fun of a number aptly titled “The Boys,” and featuring the light-hearted and cheerful choreography of Kim Bryant. Then Mr. Bruley offers a warm and very pleasant “Waitin’ For the Light to Shine.” And speaking of light, the lighting designs of Justin Woods work very well here, and throughout the show.

Popular Cliff Miller made a too-long delayed return to the Crighton stage in the role of Huck’s ornery father, Pap. Those of you who have ever had misgivings about the IRS will just love his song about the “Guv’ment.” Here’s an amusing sample:

“Dad gum guv’ment, you sorry sons of witches, You got your hands in ev’ry pocket of my britches!”

In a number that is very characteristic of the Roger Miller style, Lamont delivers on a real tongue twister with “Hand For the Hog.” After staging his own death, Huck happily celebrates his independence with “I, Huckleberry, Me.” Then we meet full-voiced George Oliver in the role of the slave, Jim. Oliver and Bruley pair in a memorable gospel duet of “Muddy Water” that was only marred by some uneducated audience member who thought it might be a good idea to start snapping flash photos of the performance. Fortunately, theater personnel intervened after a couple of distracting “shots” were fired. Meanwhile, Huck and Jim boarded a cleverly designed, on-stage raft, and started down river in such convincing fashion that we audience members could almost visualize the lights of old St. Louis as they passed. Then the music lifted to an even higher plane with the dynamite of the slaves gospel song, “The Crossing,” and its knock-out performance from Bobbi Jones, who, along with the slave chorus, would wow the crowd again during the Act Two funeral number, “How Blest We Are.” And one of the outstanding highlights of the show was the touching Huck/Jim duet of “River in the Rain.” With a sweet and solid melody, it had a perfect blending of voices from Bruley and Oliver, and the visual impact of perfect lighting on the talented singers.

For comic relief we have the two pompous and conniving tramps who pass themselves off as the Duke (Travis Bryant) and the King (Monroe Taylor). In fine voice, these con artists pair wonderfully to join Huck and close Act One with the merriment of “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.” Like P.T. Barnum, the Duke continues the nonsense in Act Two when he leads the full company in “The Royal Nonesuch,” as he charges them admission to see a freak you will have to see to believe! Tom Leroy adds to the Second Act fun as the “Old Fool” who sings the clever rhyme scheme of the delightful song, “Arkansas.”

There is deep meaning and plaintive longing in Jim and Huck’s duet of the touching “Worlds Apart.” Oliver’s fine delivery of the soliloquy that followed made me think he should try “Othello” on for size. Touching as well, is the lovely and candle-lit, “You Oughta Be Here With Me,” led by vocally talented Rachel Fogleman in the role of Mary Jane. She also joins Huck and Tom for a magnificent blending of three excellent voices in “Leaving’s the Only Way to Go.” Oliver excels again as the slaves join Jim for a powerful “Free At Last,” with great keyboard support from Wiggins. As Jim cautions Huck early on, “Life is considerable trouble and considerable joy.” Clearly, this production is one of life’s joys! Be sure to bring the kids.

Big River will be performed at Conroe’s Crighton Theatre at 8 p.m. on September 9th, and 10th. For tickets ($17- adults, $10- youngsters 18 and under) and information, call 936-441-7469.

(The Courier    8.31.05)

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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