Theater Review: BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (Rubicon Theatre in Ventura)

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by Tony Frankel on November 7, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Do whatever you can. Take a raft, pretend you’re a duke, toss pig blood around your lean-to so everyone thinks you’re dead, but get to Rubicon Theatre in Ventura for what is easily the most satisfying and uplifting musical experience in recent memory.

In Big River, adapted from the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the “mighty Mississippi” gracefully becomes a mighty metaphor for a journey of discovery into human foibles, adventure, the meaning of friendship, prejudice, redemption, and right and wrong. More than that, decked in rollicking wit and biting social commentary such as only Mark Twain could conceive, draped in catchy music by immortal songwriter Roger Miller (a surprisly perfect choice), and delivered by rich, emotive voices, it all adds up to a stunning experience.

Published in 1885 and required reading for almost every modern high-schooler, this novel was banned by libraries and beleaguered with controversies around its use of “nigger” — a word that makes this production tremble with relevance. But it never went out of print, which I always saw as a triumph for both the novel and the African-American race; you can’t blot out history, you can’t pretend it never happened, but you can acknowledge the past and build more respectful rapport between races in the present to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Big River, which opened on Broadway 100 years after the novel’s publication, does just that with aplomb, humor, and heart — all the while reveling in the human capacity to bond.

This winning cast of Broadway vets and many familiar faces from L.A. stages is a revelation of soul, panache, and talent. Kirby and Beverly Ward‘s amazing stagecraft harkens back to the great days of Story Theater — in which actors play many parts and instruments, Mike Billings‘ triple-duty design astounds with a wooden-plank set, tree leaves dangling among the light fixtures above, and palpable multi-media, and Jonathan Burke‘s flawless sound is a paragon.

With his sweet, soaring tenor, boyish looks, devilish sparkle and costume designer Abra Pilar Flores’s homespun-looking togs, Josey Montana McCoy is the perfect Huck, overflowing with youthful spirits and finding his way in life. He is the embodiment of an adventuresome boy learning from the experiences of others what is wrong and right in the world, to a very bounteous life, while beautifully capturing Twain’s pervasive social commentary and messages of human justice.

Runaway slave Jim (David Aron Damane, also from the Broadway production) joins Huck as the two set off by raft down the Mississippi, heading for the North where Jim can work to earn money and buy his family freedom. Damane’s Jim has just the right dose of sober, sincere, and focused balance. With his resounding baritone, he also leads right into the heart of the slave experience: His rendition of “Worlds Apart,” plainly showing how, under the skin, more binds us than divides us, will stay with you long after curtain. What a privilege!

And what to do about Brandon Ruiter‘s Tom Sawyer..? You don’t know whether to hug and love him or take him out to the shed and give him what for — or all of the above. The doting guardian Widow Douglas gets a sympathetic turn from the great Teri Bibb, while the stern, righteous Miss Watson is perfectly personified by Clarinda Ross.

Larry Cedar and Richard Hebert are the deliciously slimy con men King and Duke; Huck’s drink-sodden father Pap is played by an almost morbidly fascinating Joseph Fuqua); and Mary Jane Wilkes (the lovely violin-playing Cassidy Stirtz) — to whom Huck loses his heart — strikes just the right note when she is duped by the King and the Duke. I admit losing my heart to Stirtz as well.

Scenes with African-American women in shapeless dresses and head-rags, as runaway slaves loaded onto boats and guarded by rifle-toting slave catchers, singing haunting and mournful spirituals, are unforgettable. As a slave mother and daughter sold away from each other, Renn Woods and Summer Greer heartrendingly capture the horrors of slavery. (And a special thanks to Ms. Woods: When you sang “Home” during the 1970s’ tour of The Wiz, a troubled teenage boy knew he could always find solace in the theater. Your magnificent presence remains as rapturous as ever.)

The nearly three hours are true to Twain’s legacy: lively and astonishing adventure, lighthearted to caustic wit, heart-wrenching scenes lifted from the realities of slavery, and moments from the irreverent to the deeply spiritual. Twain himself could hardly have foreseen his works and clear-eyed commentary immortalized in a seven-time Tony Award-winning musical, but it’s not too big a stretch to think he would have approved. Anyone from eager history buffs to Americana fans to musical theater aficionados to, well, anyone must board this raft now for the adventure of a lifetime.

photos by Loren Haar

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Rubicon Theatre Company
1006 E. Main Street in Ventura
Wed at 2 & 7; Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 10, 2019 EXTENDED to November 17, 2019
for tickets, call 805.667.2900 or visit Rubicon

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