The 2010-11 theater season has barely started, but it’s off to a rollicking start with a lively, inventive and polished production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at Covington’s Carnegie Center. That’s no small achievement: The Carnegie’s Otto M. Budig Theatre is a lovingly restored venue, but it’s not an easy place to stage a musical — shallow stage, no real orchestra pit and limited sight lines.
But that has not troubled directors Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen or scenic designer Kristen Robinson, who used a few crates and platforms (including one that revolves to suggest Huck and Jim’s raft floating on the Mississippi River) and an evocative series of projected illustrations suggesting rustic scenes along the Mississippi to advance the story. Big River has a current that flows from start to finish.
Bryll’s way with stage movement (she’s a veteran choreographer) and Cohen’s ability to get actors to tell stories clearly combine perfectly with Robinson’s design to make the Carnegie’s limitations feel like virtues. Musical accompaniment is onstage in full view — Brian D. Hoffman, music director, at an upright piano, with a fiddler, guitarist and bass player — all in 19th-century attire (Diane Carr costumed the show) that identifies them as members of the community.
As Huck, Zach Steele has youthful enthusiasm and a sly sense of humor.
He can sing, too, whether it’s a rousing number like “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” or the soulful “River in the Rain.” The latter is one of several harmonized duets with Jim, played with urgency and a depth of feeling by Deondra Means. Their rendition of “Muddy Water” as they launch onto the river — “Look out for me” — gives them and the show undeniable momentum, and “Worlds Apart,” is a moving acknowledgment of their common ground. Means’ performance of “Free at Last” is a stirring final statement of what Jim has been pursuing.
Big River is full of comic moments and songs. Michael Carr plays two characters with complete zest: He’s Huck’s brutal, drunken father, singing about his disdain for the dad-gummed “Guv’ment” and then he’s a flimflam artist, posing as the “Duke of Bridgewater” and spouting Shakespearean gibberish intended to dazzle the rubes into paying exorbitant prices for silly shows. The Duke’s partner in chicanery is Max Chernin, trying to sell himself as the deposed King of France, as the “Royal Nonesuch” (a fake carnival freak) and finally as the heir of a deceased Englishman, with a cheesy Cockney accent.
The role of recklessly inventive Tom Sawyer is handled rambunctiously by Ben Durocher, who reveals Tom’s wild imagination in “The Boys” (dreaming up escapades for his gang) and a comic flair in “Hand for the Hog” (complete with a hand puppet). Veteran Cincinnati actor Bill Hartnett, who has often performed in solo shows as Mark Twain, handles the role of Big River’s patron saint with assurance and subtle sensitivity.
Big River’s female roles are less juicy, but Taryn Bryant has two showy, stirring numbers, one as a recaptured slave (“The Crossing”) and another as a soulful funeral soloist (“How Blest We Are”). Samantha Toberman and Carlyn Connolly play a handful of characters with plenty of texture and detail, and Shannon Beam has a sweet, momentary romance with Huck, “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go.”
Big River has a truly American score, joyously telling Twain’s iconic tale of freedom and personal growth. With a strong cast (the overall ensemble is disciplined and energetic) and clear direction, this is a production that brings out the best in a sometimes overlooked work.
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