Roger Miller’s musical “Big River” is a hoot. And Abilene’s Great Plains Theater has opened its twentieth (!) season with a fine, happy production of the show.
The story comes from Mark Twain’s greatest novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” After the rousing song “Do You Want to Go to Heaven?” (intended as encouragement for the relatively aimless Huck to learn to read his Bible), theater-goers are given a couple of samples of Tom’s world view in the adventure-seeking “The Boys” and his whimsical “Hand for the Hog.”
Huck is a little more philosophical than boy’s book reader Tom. He sees conventional life in Hannibal, Missouri before the Civil War as constraining (when he wants to smoke in church he’ll smoke and when he wants to pray, he’ll pray) but also recognizes the dangers of his father’s loafer life. He escapes his parasitic dad, hooks up with runaway slave Jim, and goes down the Mississippi on a raft.
Our hero is still looking for fun, and he doesn’t completely understand Jim’s fears when they overshoot Cairo, Illinois, the last stop in a river-side free state. The two are essentially commandeered by two traveling rogues who introduce themselves as “The Duke” (a silly actor) and “The King” (a con man preacher). Landing in two hick Arkansas towns, these crooks separate locals from their money and sell slaves they don’t own. But they are caught, tarred, and feathered.
Huck finds the farm where Jim is being held and walks right in, hoping inspiration will give him an adventure and a way to get his friend out of chains. Here a coincidence gives the story a final comic twist and allows the resolution of the central problem, that Huck needs to see that his inclinations are more right than are the conventional behaviors of his father or his Hannibal guardians.
The book manages the politically touchy problem of slavery in our history, but it does more than that. The musical isn’t the book, but it does contain enough of the book’s wallop to keep the story interesting. And the regular dollops of comedy help it.
So do the later, great Miller’s songs. The writer of “King of the Road,” “Dang Me” and other ’60s cross-over hits turned out the exciting, up-tempo “Muddy Water,” a pair of lively plot-movers (“The Royal Nonesuch” and “When the Sun Goes Down in the South”), several moving ballads, a couple of terrific gospel numbers (beat “How Blest We Are”—I dare you), and a couple of novelty tunes. These last are solos for second or third line characters, and it the Great Plains Theater production, they all got fine performances.
Director Doug Nuttleman has produced a good-looking production (lit by Manhattanite Jimilee Rempe and with a back wall, black and white, framed picture of the Mississippi that will have residents of the Little Easy thinking of the photo-mural in the Hibachi Hut). He has also cast the show very, very well. Everybody in the cast is talented and well-rehearsed.
The supporting actors include good singing Nick Albrecht (“Dad-gum guv’ment/Sorry sons of bitches/Got their damn hands in/every pocket of my britches”), the good dancing Clayton Avery, and the adaptable Sage Tokach, but every actor who got a line managed to shine the evening I saw the show.
The principals are Anthony Norman, a sort of junior Bob Walkenhorst, as Huck, Denzel Tsopnang as Jim, and the energetic Carl Glenn as Tom. Norman was apparently born for his part. The band—pianist Catherine Hammer, two guitarist/actor/harmonica players, and Glenn, who accompanies himself on his “Hog” number with some six-string strumming—was fine, though perhaps a bass or drum might have helped us keep track of the downbeats.
In fact it may be easier to talk about this production by listing the few things in it that weren’t complete successes. There is a momentary lag between Huck’s summing up speech and the final reprise of “Muddy Water.” And the off-stage singing was too soft. Those are my complaints. All of them.
At the end “It was like being born again,” though there is another reference to Tom’s rope ladder baked into a pie so that it could be smuggled to the imprisoned Jim. Maybe Tom will never completely grow up. But during this fine performance of this great stage musical, we get to see Huck solve his moral conundrum. And watching him is lots of fun.
Great Plains Theater’s twentieth anniversary season includes six other shows and runs almost to Christmas. This is a handy, inexpensive, and happy entertainment alternative for Manhattanites to remember.