Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
This bright production of the show has been nicely directed by John Simpkins. Add in Nicholas Ward's terrific and splendidly sung Jim, the slave who travels down the river with Huck, and you have the ingredients for some wonderful musical numbers between the two actors. Big River may not be a perfect musical, but Sharon Playhouse's production emphasizes the strengths in the show and makes for an extremely pleasant evening of theatre.
As mentioned, the real trump card in this Big River is Joseph Allen as Huckleberry Finn. A good-looking young man, with a wonderful singing voice and ingratiating manner, Allen doesn't so much play this character as fully embody him. He is given several fine songs (music and lyrics by Roger Miller) that he puts over wonderfully well, in particular, the fine "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" and the winning "I, Huckleberry, Me." Yet it is his scenes and duets with Ward's Jim that give the show heart. There is the lovely "River in the Rain" for the two characters that is especially touching, with the effect of the two men going down the river on a raft accomplished by the excellent set designer Josh Smith and some of the other actors pulling the raft around with ropes. The overall effect is amazing. Nicholas Ward is imposing, with a rich baritone, and he and Joseph Allen duet marvelously on "Muddy Water" and the strong "Worlds Apart." Ward is also triumphant leading the next to closing "Free at Last," giving the slaves in the show full voice.
If Roger Miller's songs are consistently entertaining and moving, the book by William Hauptman tends to get bogged down near the conclusion of the first act, with the introduction of the characters Duke and King. These flim-flam characters add convolutions to the plot that feel unnecessary, though Thomas Cannizzaro as Duke and Travis Mitchell as King are quite good and make the most of what they have to work with.
Fortunately, the show gets markedly better by the finale, especially with the work of Alex Dorf as Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer makes an appearance at the beginning of the show, leading the group number "The Boys" and handling the solo "Hand for the Hog." His reappearance in the second act brightens the show considerably and Dorf is simply superb in the role. Indeed, his performance is on the same level as Joseph Allen's.
Overall, John Simpkins' direction is brisk and well-paced, and choreographer Jennifer Werner also makes some nice contributions to the show. Kudos also go out to costume designer Michelle Eden Humphrey and lighting designer Ken Wills. Musical director James Cunningham does a great job of leading the onstage band. In general, Sharon Playhouse's team does its best to gloss over some of the problems in Big River's book and manages to deliver a foot-stomping finale that engages the whole audience. Even with the flaws, this production is a great deal fun and certainly worth seeing.
Big River continues at performances at Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, CT through July 31, 2016. For tickets, please visit www.triarts.net or call the box office at 860-364-7469.