Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 27, 2008

Big River

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through Nov. 30, 2008
by Shera Cohen

Advertisements refer to “Big River” as “a slice of pure Americana.” Who was better than Mark Twain, through his most famous character Huck Finn, to simultaneously weave a tale of our county in its glory and shame?

“Big River” jam-packs most of the Huck Finn story (it was a thick book) along with 17 songs into two and a half hours. It’s a big task to accomplish this successfully. Goodspeed, known for its excellent productions of tried and true musicals as well as those fresh out of the computer, is the ideal setting for this important story. Many read Huck’s tale as a high school assignment. On the surface, Twain’s dialect is melodic and humorous which gives the tone of froth. Yet, the author – and in the case of the musical, the composer, lyricist, director, and actors – is dead serious in the subject matters of conscience, trust, humanity, and slavery.

Huck (Will Reynolds) and Jim (Russell Joel Brown) seek their own freedom. At times they are equals, yet circumstances of the 1840s make that impossible. The camaraderie between the actors/characters is obvious, particularly in the songs “River in the Rain” and the showstopper “Muddy Water.” While the lanky, curly top Reynolds portrays Huck with vim, naiveté, and a voice to accentuate his character, he seems a bit old for the role. Brown brings depth, sorrow, and his own innocence in his portrayal of the slave Jim. His only solo, “Free at Last,” shows off his pure baritone voice.

Director Rob Ruggerio, along with his crew, creates sets with minimum multi-purpose staging and maximum skillful lighting. The pit orchestra is as fine as any at Goodspeed, with the wonderful addition of The Musician (David Lutken), an ever-present figure onstage as he plays the guitar, harmonica, banjo, and zither. Tunes run the gamut, including country, gospel, ballads, and blues. The large ensemble of townsfolk, Huck’s buddies, and slaves fill the small stage with song and dance from the opening funny number “Do a Wanna Go to Heaven?” to the reprise of “Muddy Water” finale.

The Sunday matinee full house loved Twain and Huck in October, 2008 as much as readers must have loved both in 1885.