Chicago Theatre Review
Waitin’ For the Light to Shine
Big River – Theatre at the Center
Based upon Mark Twain’s classic novel, found on practically every high school student’s summer reading list these days, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unfolds like an pre-Civil War Southern version of Candide. Like Voltaire’s novel, it’s about a young man’s journey toward meaning and self-discovery. Episodic and peppered with pain, humor and a cast of eccentric characters, Huck travels onward and learns many valuable lessons about life and the human race.
After being shuttled from adult to adult, including the care of his abusive Pap, Huck Finn stages his own death and sets out on his own, searching along the way for adventure and his independence. Early along the way he chances upon his old friend Jim, a slave belonging to his foster folks, Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas. Jim’s running away because he’s determined to head downstream where he can buy back his enslaved wife and two children. Jim has built a raft, outfitted it with basic supplies and found some money. He invites Huckleberry Finn to join him, who imagines this just might be the exciting experience he’s been imagining. However, Huck has no idea how unexpectedly bizarre and dangerous the adventure will be.
Rafting through the fog and rain, Huck and Jim miss the mouth of the Ohio River, their destination to freedom. Continuing downstream they try to avoid the law, see a boat filled with chained, runaway slaves being returned to their masters, observe a flooded house and a dead body floating in the muddy Mississippi and pick up two drifters. The men claim to be a Duke and a King, but they’re actually immoral conmen, seeking only to make a quick buck anyway they can. This includes duping the locals into buying tickets to a fake freak show, crashing a funeral and pretending to be the heirs to the family fortune and even selling Jim back into slavery. After Huck enlists the help of his old buddy Tom Sawyer to free the slave, who’s been sold to Tom’s Aunt and Uncle, the young man sits quietly with Jim recounting their adventures. While Jim plans to head north to his original destination, planning to buy back his family, Huck decides to head out west for more adventures.
Adapted by William Hauptman from Mark Twain’s highly esteemed and sometimes controversial novel, the saga spins forward on stage as story theatre. Huck Finn serves as both narrator and the main character of this musical, with each plot twist and every person we meet seen through his young, innocent eyes. As the story progresses, however, it soon starts to feel a little too long and redundant. Running well over two-and-a-half hours, including intermission, it’s clear that some judicious cuts would improve this story and move it along faster toward the best element of the show: it’s music.
Composer/lyricist Roger Miller, known for such 60’s pop hits as “Dang Me” and “King of the Road,” wrote a score for this show that’s original and memorable. Miller’s music is a unique blend of bluegrass, country, folk, gospel and honky-tonk. He’s infused his songs both with witty, whimsical lyrics and made-up words as well as some sincerely beautiful, poetry. The audience patiently waits through a series of lengthy book scenes in anticipation of Miller’s delightful, homey tunes. They include joyful songs like “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven,” “Guv’ment,” “The Royal Nonesuch” and “Hand for the Hog.” Balanced against these are beautiful ballads like “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” “River in the Rain,” “You Oughta Be Here With Me” and the gorgeous “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go.”
Director and choreographer Linda Fortunato has done a magnificent job of casting, staging and guiding her 14 member ensemble. She’s created a colorful, folksy approach in every way. Necessarily, the characters are all very strong and well-portrayed, with many of them the work of only the same few actors. The cast nicely provides the details of this morality-infused fable as they move the plot along. Fortunato’s staging is inventive and makes fine use of the Theatre’s thrust stage. The cast looks great in their 1840’s costumes, created by Brenda Winstead, with stunning wigs and hair design by the talented Kevin Barthel. Ann Davis’ multi-teared stage setting, festooned with green, leafy trees, places William Underwood’s talented bluegrass band centerstage. Comprised of fiddle, banjo, harmonica, guitar, keyboard and autoharp these folks are joined, from time-to-time, by the entire cast, each of whom joins in with his own jug band instrument.
Ms. Fortunato’s cast is first-rate. The production is led by two talented, charismatic young Chicago actors, both terrific singers and musicians. As Huckleberry Finn, James Romney, making his TATC debut, is astounding. Having been seen in several Lyric Opera productions, at Lifeline Theatre in “A Wrinkle in Time” and in the heartbreaking leading role of Theo Ubique’s “Fly By Night,” Romney holds the audience in the palm of his capable hands, right from the very beginning. James breathes sincerity into Mark Twain’s most famous literary creation. He offers an honest portrayal of a real adolescent that brims with both curiosity and confidence. He delights in numbers like “The Boys” and “I, Huckleberry, Me,” as well as several company numbers. But catch James Romney now because soon he’s off to New York, where he’ll be be seen next in the highly awaited Broadway production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
A familiar face to Chicago audiences, gifted musical theatre actor Jonathan Butler-Duplessis plays Jim with so much strength, compassion and integrity. Remembered from only a few holidays ago in TATC’s “A Christmas Carol—the Musical,” Jonathan’s bigger-than-life talents have earned him accolades and applause at Writers Theatre in “Parade,” the Paramount Theatre as Sebastian the Crab in “Disney’s Little Mermaid” and as Sweaty Eddie in the Marriott Lincolnshire’s “Sister Act.” In this production he creates an empathetic young husband and father, unfairly separated from his family, who brings warmth and humor to this powerful role. The actor makes the horror of slavery truly become flesh and blood. Both actors blend in perfect harmony, with songs like the poignant “Worlds Apart” and the show’s signature piece, “Muddy Water;” while Mr. Duplessis unabashedly raises the roof with his eleventh hour ode to independence, a goose-bump provoking “Free at Last.”
Other standouts in this excellent ensemble cast include a versatile Liz Chidester as Miss Watson, Sally and others; Johanna McKenzie Miller, always excellent, this time playing the Widow Douglas and Joanna, among others; the extraordinary Camille Robinson as Alice and a whole slew of other characters; and Caitlin Cavannaugh as Mary Jane and members of the ensemble.
Kyle Quinlivan excites in his TATC debut as a feisty, funny but not-very-bright Tom Sawyer, among other characters. The brilliant comedy team of Jason Richards (Tateh in Griffin Theatre’s recently acclaimed “Ragtime”), playing the Duke and Judge Thatcher, and Brett Tuomi (seen on the Goodman stage in “Ah, Wilderness!”), as Huck’s Pap and the King, are both terrific. They work so well together as partners in crime, both demonstrating their strong vocal talents, while individually they command the stage with perfect comic timing.
Ironically, Mark Twain’s significant 1884 novel about racial equality and human rights only finally appeared on Broadway 101 years later. It was a huge hit at that time, particularly since, in the middle of the invasion of so many British musicals, “Big River” stood out as a truly American piece of theatre. The original production took home the 1985 Tony for Best Musical, among its seven other awards. It also earned a special Tony Honor of Excellence for its innovative 2003 revival, co-produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre. Theatre at the Center continues its own legacy of excellent productions, both creatively directed and brilliantly cast by Linda Fortunato. For audiences waiting for the light to shine, here’s the show that promises to break through all the clouds of darkness.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 14-October 15 by Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN.
Tickets are available at the box office by calling 219-836-3255, at Tickets.com at 800-511-1552 or by going to www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.