There is one word that best describes the motivation of the two main characters in the 1985 musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The word is “freedom.” Both Huckleberry Finn, who is chafing at being told by his elders what to do and how to behave, and Jim, the runaway slave who wants to find his wife and children, desire the freedom to pursue their lives without being fettered by the social conventions of the day. But “freedom” is also the operative word describing director/choreographer Kirby Ward and his wife, associate director/associate producer Beverly Ward’s desire to bring their vision of Big River to the Rubicon Theatre Company. The result is one of the more enchanting and innovative musicals we’ve seen this year, a production that brings alive the times described by Mark Twain in his 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The production plays through November 10 at the Ventura theater.
The institutionalized racism described in Twain’s novel was kept intact by book writer William Hauptman and composer Roger Miller (“King of the Road,” “Dang Me”), who combined to win seven Tony Awards for the show, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. Miller, one of country music’s most brilliant singer-songwriters, was writing his first Broadway show, but perfectly captured the spirit of Twain’s work, providing a score that cast a wide net of Americana musical styles, encompassing folk, gospel, and rural dance music, in addition to Miller’s own snappy, jazz-influenced patter style.
Kirby Ward’s idea was to simplify Big River while simultaneously bringing the audience closer to the action. In a unique staging concept, Ward removed several dozen seats from the 150-seat theater, and moved them to the stage, in two bleacher-like settings to create an in-the-round feeling. He then constructed a wooden deck on top of the theater’s stage, representing Huck and Jim’s raft, placing the show’s seven-piece pit band in between the two sets of seats. The vacant spaces on the floor were replaced by two long wooden “docks” that protrude into the theater, serving as runways for actors to enter and exit the stage. The result is an intimate, immersive space in which actors and audience members surround one another in every scene, the effect heightened through set designer Mike Billings’ brilliantly atmospheric wall projections. (Billings was responsible for last year’s superb South Pacific at the theater.)
When you walk into the theater, you are immediately transported back to antebellum Missouri, as the dimmed lights, foliage hanging from the lighting apparatus, and the sounds of chirping crickets and croaking frogs fill the room. With that setting established, we meet young Huck Finn, who is rebelling against the social conventions put upon him by his stern guardians, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, who warn him that if he wants to go to heaven, he has to learn to read, write, and study the Bible. Like Tony in West Side Story, Huck has a premonition: “a strange feelin’ trouble is comin’,” as he sings in “Waitin’ For the Light to Shine.” Attacked by his hallucinating, alcoholic father, he fakes his own death and escapes, only to find an unlikely companion in the runaway slave Jim, who joins him as they seek the port of Cairo, where Jim hopes to buy back his wife and two children. Huck and Jim’s adventures are drawn from Twain’s novel, most notably their association with the Duke and the King, two swindling scoundrels who they encounter on the river.
Josey Montana McCoy, a name that probably would have pleased Twain, plays young Huck. A native Kentuckian, McCoy perfectly encapsulates Huck’s innate likability at the outset, summoning forth Huck’s sense of innocence, love of adventure, and joie de vivre. As he writes in his bio, McCoy “would do Big River for the rest of his life if the universe allowed” and wouldn’t we love to see him do it in perpetuity?
David Aron Damane (pronounced “duh-MAHN-nay”) is no stranger to Big River, having appeared in the show on Broadway and on national tours. With a robust, magisterial baritone, the barrel-chested Damane perceptively portrays Jim with the gentle nobility Twain envisioned for him. In their scenes together on the river, McCoy and Damane are magical. When a thunderstorm envelopes their raft, Huck shares a burlap blanket with Jim to shelter them while the two sing the exquisite “River in the Rain.” The song, the actors, the music, the sound effects, and the setting all combine to make for one of the most enrapturing scenes you will see on the stage.
Ward’s minimalist approach necessitated a smaller cast than is usually used for this show; thus, many of the performers were required to play multiple roles. Ward’s idea was to give the impression that a traveling troupe is putting on the show, and in doing so, he brought in versatile character actors like the fabulous Larry Cedar, who plays Judge Thatcher and the eloquent Duke, Clarinda Ross as the Widow Douglas, Aunt Sally, and several other roles, and Rubicon’s resident acting chameleon Joseph Fuqua, who plays four parts, including Huck’s irascible father Pap.
Ward even drew upon members of Abdul Hamid Royal’s small orchestra to play key roles in the show. Mike Nappi, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn, plays five small parts, stepping away from his seat in the orchestra to play horn on the stage, trail after the other actors, and help move props and set pieces. Cassidy Stirtz, an accomplished hoedown fiddle player, also plays the part of the innocent, compassionate Mary Jane Wilkes, who befriends Huck. Stirtz gets to show off a lovely singing voice as well, leading off the lilting waltz, “You Oughta Be Here With Me.”
Brandon Ruiter is wonderful as the rowdy Tom Sawyer, Twain’s version of Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up. In addition to soloing on the rambunctious “Hand For the Hog” (probably the most Roger Miller-like song in the score), Ruiter hauled out a string bass to accompany himself on the number. Also of note is Broadway veteran Richard Hebert, another seasoned actor with a mile-long resume, who is terrific as the King.
The Rubicon was fortunate to acquire the services of a show business legend, Renn Woods, whose long list of credits includes the television mini-series Roots, the movie musical version of Hair, and multiple appearances on Broadway, playing Dorothy in the first national Broadway tour of The Wiz. Woods, who plays the slave Alice in the show, sings a glorious solo on the gospel-like The Crossing as well as joining Damane, Cheyenne Green, Summer Greer, Carter Michael, and Joshua Valerion on the inspirational “Free At Last.”
Rubicon’s production of Big River continues its ongoing savvy for staging Broadway classics for smaller audiences. In recent years, their productions of South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and others have also incorporated creative ingenuity in enhancing the experience of theater-goers who have become jaded seeing their favorite large-scale Broadway musicals presented in conventional settings. We applaud Rubicon for the continued excellence and innovation of its series of musicals, of which Big River is an unparalleled triumph.
A word of caution: in keeping with preserving the integrity and vernacular language used in Twain’s novel, Rubicon’s production preserves the pervasive use of an offensive racist epithet, the rationale of which is carefully explained in a pre-curtain speech.
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn plays through November 10 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.