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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 21, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 38
Big River a new spin on Finn
Arts & Entertainment
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Big River a new spin on Finn

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
VILLAGE THEATRE
Through October 21 (Issaquah)
October 26-November 18 (Everett)


Village Theatre's latest production is a rollicking, feel-good experience, sometimes a bit at odds with its subject matter - the last days of slavery, as told by Mark Twain. The music and lyrics by Roger Miller are often upbeat and exuberant. The choreography by Daniel Cruz envelopes the whole stage, often with huge ensemble numbers that lift your spirits.

There is a whole lot to like, as is usual for Village productions, in this musical. Aside from the excellent choreography, director Steve Tomkins gets great support from an amazing set by Scott Fyfe - a rustic system of piers that appear and disappear as needed, even flying into the ceiling at one point! - along with expressive lighting from Tom Sturge, down-home costuming from Melanie Burgess, and a beautifully rendered score from music director Tim Symons.

Twain's seminal characters, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, are presented as trouble-making scamps in an early would-be pirate gang, though they imagine themselves much more troublesome than they really are. Huck has to escape from an abusive father and decides to fake his own death. Then he finds that Jim, a local slave, has escaped as well and, somewhat dubiously, Huck decides to raft down the Mississippi with Jim. Thus their adventures begin.

In an outstanding introduction to the local theater community, Jim is played by Rodney Hicks, who recently moved to the Portland area after starring on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys and other shows. He is riveting every time he takes stage, with a ramrod-straight posture and a mellow, commanding baritone.

His tormented gaze pierces the audience, who cannot help but feel his pain at being a slave. The ensemble of African-American actors who play slaves also are a suitably mournful bunch and it is just painful to see them with chains on.

Hicks is joined by Randy Scholz as Huck. While Scholz has a very easy-to-listen-to vocal quality and can handily manage the choreography, he's got two aspects that work against his performance. First, he's even taller than Hicks, which plays against his teenage-ness and visually jars, and second, he doesn't deepen the emotional content of the role, staying on the surface. He neither seems upset at getting beaten by his father nor fearful of going on a journey into the unknown almost alone. While the vocal blend of Hicks' and Scholz's voices is quite lovely, that emotional disconnect fails the production as a whole.

But there are other standout performances. Unusually for them, both Greg McCormick Allen and Rich Gray play bad guys. Funny bad guys, but Allen and Gray are almost always funny good guys onstage. David Anthony Lewis gets a hysterical moment as the terrible father figure. Having recently been the hysterically funny-bad Nazi in Village's The Producers, Lewis is in danger of being typecast as the bad guy with the hysterical song! He's so great at it!

Cheryl Massey-Peters and Jayne Muirhead have a great time as 'aunts' to Huck. Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako and Stacie Pinkney Calkins offer a couple of great vocal moments. Taylor Niemeyer is entrancing as a love interest, and on-stage musicians John Patrick Lowrie and Eric Chappelle add wonderful ambience.

For more information go to www.villagetheatre.org or call (425) 392-2202.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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