New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"Big River"
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam

The musical “Big River,” based on the classic tale of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, is now on the boards at Goodspeed—and with fine results. Director Rob Ruggiero offers a low-keyed, focused version of the musical, bringing it back to the original story. Huck Finn’s moral dilemma is at the heart of it, never overwhelmed by big splashy production numbers or Broadway-type sets.

What is that dilemma? “Big River” is set in the South of the 1840s--specifically, Missouri and other points on the Mississippi River. It is a time of slavery, as Huck travels down river with his black companion Jim, a runaway slave. Should Huck do the “right” thing—right for those times—that is, betray Jim? Or should Huck follow his heart and shelter his friend? The heart-warming story with its dark undertones comes through clearly in this production. With Ruggiero’s understated approach, intimacy prevails, and the audience moves back in time to share Huck’s dilemma.

Everything works together, conspiring to create the right mood. First, the eclectic music (blues, gospel, Cajun, but especially country) provided by a small orchestra under Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction. Roger Miller’s music and lyrics may not be memorable or unique, but they are suited to the story, carrying one pleasantly down the river. Ruggiero achieves a sense of time and place which is further enhanced by an inspired design team (Michael Schweikardt--set, John Lasiter--lighting, and Alejo Vietti—costumes). Schweikardt creates a raft that glides smoothly across the stage against the backdrop of a lighted river scene. A word of praise, also, to choreographer John MacInnis and dance captain Marissa McGowan. Production numbers are sharp, clean, and highly satisfying. All told, it is a case of “less is more.”

As to performances, a solid cast has been assembled. Will Reynolds in the lead is an appealing Huck Finn, though one would have liked a darker, grittier interpretation by this actor. Huck, considering his horrendous background, would have been a tougher guy, with more spine, in our view. But Reynolds, in the role, is as cuddly as a teddy bear. In contrast Russell Joel Brown, who plays his black companion, is right on target. He gives a dignity and power to the role, and from the moment Brown comes on stage, the musical moves to a higher, more level. Jeremy Jordon is delicious in the supporting role of Tom Sawyer, with never a false note, Marissa McGowan is enchanting as the beleaguered heiress Mary Jane, and Kenneth Cavett delivers a devastating portrayal as Huck’s Pap. Also, Ed Dixon and John Bolton, as the two river grifters, add a high comic touch to lighten the proceedings.

In all, Goodspeed delivers the goods, providing its best show this season. At last, the venerable theater offers more than drinks on the terrace and a view of the Connecticut River. Another river prevails this time around.

-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 30, 2008

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