Thalian Association weathered truly extenuating circumstances in the form of a snow and ice storm that wiped out tech-week for their latest offering on the main stage: “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” scored by the talented Grammy and Tony-winning country artist Roger Miller. But, from Sunday’s performance, one would never notice a loss of rehearsal time. The cast and band put on wonderful performances.
In 1984 “Big River” premièred in Regional Theatre on its way to Broadway 100 years after the novel it was based upon came out: Mark Twain’s 1884 book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Much like “Wicked,” the musical adaptation of Gergory Maguire’s novel, this script has to compress a very complicated and involved story into a two-hour-or-so musical-theatre formula.
Huck Finn (Paul Teal) and his good friend Tom Sawyer (Dru Loman) are suffering the aftereffects of becoming rich from finding Injun Joe’s stolen fortune. It’s not so bad for Tom, but for Huck it means that the Widow Douglas (Linsey McGrath) adopts and attempts to civilize him. This is just a bit more than poor Huck can take and then his believed-to-be-dead father (Skip Maloney) shows up to claim both Huck and the money.
Maloney is a truly terrifying presence and a foil to McGrath’s genuine parental concern for Huck. Maloney’s big number as Pap Finn, “Guv’ment,” should be embraced as a Tea Party anthem. Huck takes off on a river raft with the help of Jim (Khawon Proter), a runaway slave (The Admirable Crichton of the two of them). The most transformative adventure of his life begins.
Eagerly I have been anticipating Khawon Porter’s portrayal of Jim since I heard he was cast—and he does not disappoint. If anything he exceeds expectations. Goosebumps and chills are the result of his phenomenal singing, especially in the song “Free at Last.” Truly this last year Porter has demonstrated a surprising range of acting, most recently as Phineas Trout, the TV reporter in “Willy Wonka,” but also a Transylvania minion in “Rocky Horror,” a cowboy in “Oklahoma!” and an assortment of disgruntled French people in “Les Mis.” He has gravitas. He has struggle. He has an amazing voice, and he can dance beautifully—all of which add up to a remarkable performance as Jim. What he and Teal do together is a joy to behold.
Director Laurene Perry makes excellent choices casting, and the work she and the performers do remains beautiful to watch. Paul Teal, in particular, comes as a nice surprise as Huck. Teal brings a powerful singing voice to the role, but more so he offers a genuine childishness that is Huck. He contains the well-intentioned innocence of a poorly educated white child of the time who can say such things as, “I don’t care if they call me a dirty abolitionist.” He can also grow, and he does significantly during the show, so that at the end, as he heads off west into the sunset, we really believe he will be alright.
He has really wonderful chemistry with both Porter and Loman. When Porter and Teal sing “Muddy Water,” Kleenexes should be handy. He and Loman hatching the plans to free Jim is also delightful, as Loman brings to life the boy who is too clever for his own good: Tom Sawyer. When he sings “Hand for the Hog,” it is completely believable that this would be the boy who could get you to pay him for the privilege of white-washing Aunt Polly’s fence.
The real comic relief comes in the form of Charlie Robertson and Stuart Pike as two escaped convicts who masquerade as the missing Dauphin and the Duke of Bridgewater. Debra Gillingham obviously enjoyed choreographing this show but she must have laughed her way through the scenes involving these two—they are having so much fun it is infectious. Her big crowd numbers like “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?” are exceptionally well put together.
Dallas LaFon’s lighting design is a delight to behold, from the lovely full moon, to the rippling water effects he creates for the rafting scenes, to the sunrise through night sky effects. To say he enhances the visual experience is an understatement. Debbie Scheu’s meticulous costuming of nearly 30 people in period clothing is, as always, incredibly impressive.
Michael Lauricella conducts a great live orchestra that includes cameo appearances onstage from Big Al Hall (banjo), Adrian Varnum (fiddle) and Randy McQuay (harmonica). Roger Miller’s score really demands a live band, because it draws heavily on church music, along with bluegrass, which incites the proverbial ho-down. The band really does it justice; we are so lucky to have talented musicians in Wilmington to call on for performances like this.
Though the subject matter is heavy, it’s important. Discussing slavery and what it means individually not just for slaves but for the people within a society that upholds such a social norm is painful and difficult. There is violence onstage; there is also the unsettling re-occurring theme of putting a price on human worth and life. We must discuss this very real aspect not just from American history but of human nature. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Part of what Perry and the cast do so well, is show how easily we can slip into these traps.
“Big River” is a very fun show that talks about quite serious topics in an approachable way. To parents needing advice on whether it’s kid-friendly: The young 9-year-old on my right wanted to be sure I told everyone how much he enjoyed the show.
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Thurs. – Sun. through Feb. 9th, 8 p.m.; or Sun., 3 p.m. • Tickets: $15 – $30
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of five)
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
910-632-2241 • www.thalianhall.com