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‘Big River’ powerful, entertaining, poignant

Sat., June 15, 2013

“Big River” is not a flashy musical.

There are no gigantic, complicated dance numbers. The songs are not overbearing. The effects are not wrapped up in over-the-top pyrotechnics.

These are not flaws, by any means. “Big River,” as staged by Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, is a highly entertaining down-home delight, filled with laughs, toe-tapping tunes, powerful ballads and top-notch singing and acting.

The story is a familiar one. “Big River” is a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” with music and lyrics by Roger Miller (“King of the Road”) and book by William Hauptman.

Huck (Max Demers), whose dad has run off, chafes under the pressure of being civilized by the Widow Douglas (Callie McKinney Cabe) and Miss Watson (Tamara Schupman). His Pap (Michael Weaver) returns, after hearing that Huck found a fortune. Pap gets drunk and tries to kill him, leading Huck to fake his death and run away. He teams up with a runaway slave, Jim (Terrence Kelley), and they set off down the Mississippi on a raft from their Missouri home, hoping to eventually make their way by steamboat north to the free states.

But they miss Cairo, Ill., where they’d planned to head north on the Ohio River. They run into a couple of con artists, the Duke (Patrick Treadway) and the King (Jerry Scarrio), and stumble into an opportunity to steal the inheritance of the Wilkes sisters (Darcy Wright, Kara Karvig and Carly Hebert).

The show kicks off with an appearance by Mark Twain (Kent Kimball) and goes into high gear quickly with the ensemble number “Do You Want to Go to Heaven,” in which Huck’s guardians, including Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas and Judge Thatcher (Jack Bannon), urge Huck to mend his ways. Having none of it, he meets up with Tom Sawyer (Matt Wade) and their pals for a rousing rendition of “The Boys.”

Weaver, as Huck’s father, is a frightful sight. He pulls Huck away from the safety of the widow’s house and takes him to his shack. Weaver is menacing as he launches into “Guv’ment” – a tirade against anyone who would try to take his boy, or his boy’s money, away from him. It’s a great number.

Also great is “Hand for the Hog,” an oddball little vaudeville-style number sung by Tom Sawyer while Huck sets the stage for his fake death. Stylistically, it’s a departure from the bluegrass and country-flavored music we’d heard so far. Still, it’s a nice bit of comic relief after a harrowing scene.

Speaking of comic relief, both Treadway and Scarrio are delightful as the scheming Duke and King. “The Royal Nonesuch,” which opens Act II, is led by Treadway and is a high-spirited bit of comedy.

The heart of the show is the relationship between Huck and Jim. Both Demers and Kelley are excellent singers, and their duets are among the show’s highlights. “River in the Rain” from Act I and “Worlds Apart” from Act II are both lovely.

Individually, each actor has opportunity to shine. Demers’ performance of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” which is reprised in Act II, shows off his pleasing voice. Kelley, as Jim is chained after being sold into slavery again, turns in a strong version of “Free at Last,” a song that clearly echoes the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

The most powerful moments in “Big River” center on slavery and the people living in bondage. A haunting moment from Act I has Huck and Jim hiding as a slave trader brings a group of recaptured slaves back to Missouri. Deidre Grace leads an ensemble in singing “The Crossing,” a song in the spiritual style. Later, the black actors in the cast are on the auction block, in chains, singing “How Blest We Are” with the rest of the company. It’s a moving scene.

Now, I did say that there were no pyrotechnics, but that doesn’t mean that “Big River” is poorly staged. On the contrary. The lighting nicely conveyed the change from day to night and from clear skies to rain. The motorized raft used to float Huck and Jim down the river is a fantastic prop and really helps transport audiences to the banks of the Mississippi in the years leading up to the Civil War.

“Big River” is a trip I’d be happy to take again.

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