Big River – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

The atmospheric sound effects of croaking frogs on the Mississippi bayou aside, the first thing you’ll notice as you enter the house dangles from above.  You can’t miss them. Four large banners, hanging over Hale Centre Theatre’s forum, each perfectly angled so that no matter where you are in the auditorium’s arena-style seating, you’ll be able to read them.

The inscription declares ‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished. Persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order Of The Author.’ It’s signed, Mark Twain. The whimsical quote is taken directly from the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, as the house lights dim and patrons have finally shut off their cameras and phones, look closely as the cast enters from the aisles. For a brief moment, you’ll notice the celebrated author himself walking among them, looking up and admiring his words.

Big River is the sprawling Tony-award winning comedy musical of Twain’s classic novel, where young Huckleberry Finn (an engaging Nicholas Gunnell) and the runaway slave Jim (Robert Collins, excellent voice) take to the Mississippi River during a pre-Civil War Missouri on a raft, looking to escape to their freedom while encountering an array of characters and conflicts along the way.

Writer William Hauptman’s adaptation of the Twain novel is surprisingly faithful, incorporating most of the episodes found in the book. Huck’s encounter with his drunken father (Gary Caswell) is streamlined, plus the episode of the feud between the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons is gone. But generally, most of the adventures remain intact, which helps explain the show’s duration. With a running time that reaches almost three hours, including a fifteen-minute intermission, you start to feel the length in the second act where the tone darkens considerably when compared to the bouncy upbeat nature of the show’s first act. Interestingly, while the production centers around the characters of Huck and Jim, the musical has the runaway slave become more of a supporting character. His seizure by the authorities galvanizes young Huck into doing what needs to be done in order to rescue him, but his absence for large chunks of that second act is noticeable, something that feels less so in Twain’s novel.

In keeping with the style of the book and its language, the story is narrated by Huck himself, so all events are related from the young boy’s point-of-view, including his interpretation of what he sees and how he hears things. With a grin and boundless energy, Gunnell’s Huck lets us know that he’s telling a story, one that began in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but concludes with Huck. “And he told the truth,” Huck informs, referring to the book’s author, adding a sly, “Mainly.”

The musical is a good one, but not a great one, as evidenced by the bloated length and events of the second act. It may have garnered seven Tonys but they came with red flags. In 1985 there were only four musicals nominated. Outside of being a dedicated Broadway follower, no one remembers the other three; Grind, Leader of the Pack, and Quilters. Things were so bad that year, the awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Choreography were actually scrapped for the first time in Tony’s history. It’s not hard to assume that Big River won Best Musical due to a clear lack of competition more than anything else.

The score by Roger Miller, remembered best for his 60’s hits King of the Road, England Swings, and Dang Me, is inspired from the country styles of the period, incorporating bluegrass and gospel, all sung here at Hale by outstanding voices, but it’s hardly memorable. Repeated listening to the original cast recording may develop favorites, but it’s doubtful that most patrons hearing the score for the first time will leave the theatre humming any of the tunes, as bouncy and as harmonic as several of them are.

Director Tim Dietlein has his cast constantly on the move, including the motorized raft, making expert use of Hale’s arena staging so that at almost every moment in a scene, no matter where you’re sitting, you’ll have the characters facing you. When Huck narrates, the director has Gunnell turning and leaping around the forum with an energy that’s quite infectious, drawing all four sides of the house into his tale at the same time. And whenever someone enters in a stationary position, as with Judge Thatcher (Joey Morrison) seated behind a desk in his office, the character glides on from an aisle and remains there, viewable from all sides of the house, his back to no one.

The same good use of space is employed by Cambrian James’ choreography where, even with a large ensemble filling most areas, energetic dancers circle so that every member can be seen at some point on the floor.

Scene transitions are also smooth and constantly flow without pause. At the conclusion of the cheerful sing-a-long ditty Arkansas sung by Nick Williams, as both the sight and sound of his character slowly fade from the aisle, the funeral scene with a somber ensemble has already assembled and is in motion with How Blest We Are. It’s akin to the effect of a movie dissolve, and it’s very effective.

It should also be noted that in keeping with Hale Centre Theatre’s policy of keeping its entertainment family friendly, as with other Hale productions, some of the dialog from the original Broadway show reflecting Twain’s authentic use of period language is toned down, noticeable even in the songs. Pap Finn’s rant on the Guv’ment has words eliminated, rendering what was already a ‘PG’ production down to a ‘G.’ Twain’s novel has always suffered the threats of having sections censored by those who overlook the story’s literary value in order not to offend, particularly in the classroom, but as literary scholar Thomas Wortham asked, censoring elements of the language doesn’t challenge children to ask ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?’ Even a Disney production is not quite this clean.

On the other hand, you can’t argue with a successful formula. Hale’s recent production of Singin’ In The Rain played to capacity throughout its run, while Big River looks to be on target with a similar box-office outcome. Just don’t expect to be seeing other Tony award winners such as Rent, Spring Awakening or anything by David Mamet performed at the Gilbert theatre anytime soon.

Promotional Pictures Courtesy of Dave Dietlein of Hale Theatre

Big River continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until May 11

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