“Big River” a Complicated, Spirited, Joyous Trip
By Skip Sheffield
As Huck Finn himself puts it, “Big River” is “complicated trouble and complete joy.”
“Big River” is a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with music by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman. The Slow Burn Theatre production of this 19th century tale of trials and tribulations runs through April 2 at Broward Center for the Arts.
Tampa born and bred Ricky Cona stars as irrepressible Huck Finn, who has come into a considerable sum of money after an adventure with his best friend Tom Sawyer. Huck has no mother and his “Pap” has disappeared. He is staying uneasily with the Widow Douglas (Anne Marie Olson) and her overbearingly pious spinster sister, Miss Watson (Erin Pittleman). The time is just before the Civil War in St. Petersburg, Missouri.
The role of Tom Sawyer was played by understudy Cameron Jordan opening night after an accident benched David Matthew Klein. Tom Sawyer is above Huck in social standing, and he already knows how to read and write. It is Tom Sawyer who is always cooking up complicated schemes that get the boys in trouble.
Cameron Jordan acquitted himself well on such short notice. He also played his regular roles of Ben Rogers, Hank, and a young fool from Arkansas.
Two things intervene to interrupt Huck’s “civilization.” First he learns Widow Douglas is considering selling her slave manservant Jim (Brian Maurice Kinnard) for a much-needed $800. Secondly, his crude, drunken Pap Finn (Troy J. Stanley) returns after a year’s absence and demands the $6,000 in gold Huck and Tom have put in trust with Judge Thatcher (James A. Skiba). Huck genuinely fears his father and deeply cares for Jim, so he decides to fake his death and take off on the river of the title on a raft in search of Cairo, Illinois and eventual freedom for Jim.
Roger Miller was no Cole Porter, though he won a Tony for Best Score for this show. His songs tend to the country honky-tonk. His best-known is “King of the Road.” Most of the songs serve to advance the story. Some, such as “Muddy Water” and “Waitin’ For The Light To Shine,” have an anthemic gospel quality, beautifully harmonized by the 20-member cast.
Ricky Cona has a fine tenor as Huck, but it is Brian Kinnard who really rattles the house as Jim. His distaff counterpart is Kendra Williams who plays the small role of Alice’s daughter, yet lights up the house every time with her heartfelt wailing.
Leah Sessa also has a small part but a large presence as innocent Mary Jane Wilkes, who is harassed by the lecherous “King” (Matthew Korinko) and his sidekick The Duke (Victor Souffrant in fine comic fiddle). The comic apex of these amoral con men is “The Royal Nonesuch” of complete nonsense.
With a six-piece band tucked away under the stage and muscular, athletic choreography by director Patrick Fitzwater, “Big River” is big fun that just keeps rolling along.
Tickets are $47-$60. Call 954-462-0222 or go to www.slowburntheatre.com.