By Richard Ades
Standing Room Only nearly lived up to its name Friday, as its evening performance of Big River filled most of the seats in CPAC’s Van Fleet Theatre. Hopefully, that means there’s a market for the ambitious programming the troupe has been tackling of late.
Or maybe it simply means people have an undying love for the tale whose source material is often considered the Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adapted by William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), the Tony-winning musical again sends its scruffy title character and a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi on their respective quests for adventure and freedom.
One of the gutsiest things about SRO’s production is also the reason parents might want to prepare their youngest children for the experience. Like Twain’s novel, but unlike an expurgated version I saw many years ago, it allows characters to spout the most racist term in the American vocabulary. The word can sound jarring to modern ears, but it’s probably necessary. That’s because the story depends on a frank portrait of 19th century attitudes to underscore its central lesson.
Huck begins the tale as a rebellious lad who nonetheless accepts the morality of his pre-Civil War era when it comes to the subjugation of black Americans. Indeed, he’s so convinced slavery is a holy institution that he worries he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. Both the novel and the musical are most moving when they show the boy reassessing his position after getting to know Jim as a human being.
Miller’s songs are sometimes stirring but mostly laid-back and pleasant, especially when accompanied by SRO’s old-timey quintet. Performing under music director Chipper Snow, it’s dominated by Ted Reich’s wistful harmonica and Jordan Shear’s lively fiddle.
As for the vocals, there are a few pitchy moments, but most cast members are up to the challenge. That’s especially true of the two male leads. Caleb Baker (as Huck) and Brandon Buchanan (as Jim) harmonize beautifully on duets such as Muddy Water and Worlds Apart.
Acting-wise, their styles are a bit less harmonious. Though Buchanan’s Jim reflects the tension and fears of a man determined to float his way to freedom, Baker’s Huck is unrelentingly calm. He seems unruffled whether he’s fighting off a knife attack or trying to avoid being tarred and feathered by angry townsfolk.
Baker’s physical appearance—he’s taller and huskier than most of the “adults” around him—also undercuts his portrayal of the youth. But that would be less of a problem if he acted more like a frightened teen rather than a laconic good ol’ boy.
Several of the supporting players make indelible impressions under Dee Shepherd’s easy-going direction.
John Feather is dignified and decent as Judge Thatcher, then abandons both dignity and decency to play the self-described King, a con artist who hitches a ride on Huck and Jim’s raft. Greg Zunkewicz is equally conniving as the King’s companion, the Duke, but he sometimes needed to project more at the performance I attended.
Funniest of all is Thor Collard as Huck’s drunken Pap, especially when he’s railing musically against the Gov’ment. Sweetest of all is Ashton Brammer as Mary Jane, who wins Huck’s heart when she becomes the victim of a scheme hatched by the King and the Duke.
As Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, Anthony Guerrini gets across the lad’s addiction to romantic adventures. It’s not his fault that Tom becomes a distraction late in the story. His 11th-hour reappearance is the only instance in which Twain’s Great American Novel becomes a little less than great.
Even more than SRO’s recently staged Sweeney Todd, Big River is presented in a bare-bones manner. Designed by Angela Barch, some of the costumes are only vaguely 1840-ish, while the “scenery” consists mainly of a footlocker and a large box.
But none of that matters when the production is at its best, doling out sweet music along with a morality tale that retains its power 131 years after it first pricked the conscience of America.
Standing Room Only Theatre will present Big River through May 7 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $21, $18 seniors (55-plus), $16 members, $12 students. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.