Big River (Village Theatre)

Posted on October 1, 2012

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Huck and Jim

Randy Scholz (Huck) and Rodney Hicks (Jim).
Photo by Jay Koh.
Property of Village Theatre.

Village Theatre kicks off its 2012-2013 season with Roger Miller’s Tony award-winning musical, Big River. Big River is based on Mark Twain’s timeless classic tale and chronicles the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his friend, a runaway slave Jim as they raft down the Mississippi River. Reminiscent of a summer’s evening sky, Village Theatre’s production of Big River shines with numerous points of lights and guarantees to delight audience of all ages. The production proves a masterfully prepared, directed and performed show can both simultaneously entertain as well as stimulate theater goers to consider deeper issues like human rights and equality.

Big River will no doubt have broad appeal due to its engaging, adventurous storyline and popular lead characters, Huckleberry Finn played with much boyish charm by a talented Randy Sholz and runaway slave, Jim, portrayed by the charismatic Rodney Hicks. The show actually has many wonderfully quirky characters, which run the gamut from loveable and endearing to the outright peculiar and despicable. Each is uniquely brought to life by a brilliant cast, which is supported by beautifully detailed sets, an immersive production and of course, Roger Miller’s wonderful eclectic range of bluegrass, blues and country music.

Jim (Rodney Hicks) and Ensemble.
Photo by Jay Koh.
Property of Village Theatre.

Polished set design and transitions, clearly a hallmark of a Village Theatre show, were executed with technical perfection; successfully transporting the audience onto that raft going down river with Huck and Jim. The raft flows back and forth across the stage, without any cords or pulleys. On their journey down river, a canoe, a washed out house, a body and other debris, float out to meet them on their travels. Kudos to the production crew for immersing us in the experience along with Huck and Jim.

Sholz and Hicks, similarly to the characters they play, seem so different and yet together they have an amazing chemistry. Their voices each distinct and strong in their own right, somehow combined on songs like “Muddy Water“, “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” to create powerful and moving performances. When Hicks begins to sing, you feel it deep within your soul.

Randy Scholz (Huck).
Photo by Mike Hipple.
Property of Village Theatre.

Like a fine blended Kentucky whiskey, Big River combines a fine mix of diverse musical numbers ranging from the lighthearted, upbeat and outright goofy (“The Boys”, “Hand For the Hog”, “The Royal Nonesuch”, “I, Huckleberry, Me” and “Arkansas”) to the upbeat and catchy toe-tapping (“Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven”, “Muddy Water”, “When the Sun Goes Down”, “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine”, “You Oughta Be Here With Me”) and evocative and soulful ballads (“Worlds Apart”, “The Crossing”, “Free at Last”, “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go” and “River in the Rain”).

One poignant song which caught my son and I’s attention was the rendition of “Guv’Ment” which David Anthony Lewis as Huck’s n’er do well alcoholic father Pap, knocks out of the park. The entire scene of his choreographed drunken stagger and rant, will linger with you long after the show is over. I found Lewis’ performance on par with John Goodman’s portrayal in the original show. It is interesting that Pap’s warning seems equally relevant for us today as it did back then.

While the show does have its share of laughs and lighthearted moments (special call out to the prop master Monique Walker for the beautiful pig’s head and stuffed catfish) it tackles the issues of racism and bigotry by simply showing them in the comments and interactions of the characters. At one point, Jim and Huck watch as a ship of captured escaped slave crosses in front of them on the river. The chilling and beautiful tones of the “The Crossing” cast a pall over the mood as you realize that while this may just be a grand adventure to Huck, for Jim it is a matter of life and death.

It is an intriguing and slow transformation watching Huck go from befriending Jim as a slave, to making the leap of beginning to see Jim as a human being equal to himself. It is a reminder to us that old habits die extremely hard, even with those who consider themselves to be progressive. For Huck it was one thing to consider Jim as human, but it is another thing to see him on equal footing with himself. In fact, his initial lack of consideration for Jim’s dire situation seems shocking to us.

The Duke (Greg McCormick Allen), Huck (Randy Scholz), and The King (Richard Grey).
Photo by Jay Koh.
Property of Village Theatre.

Big River is an embarrassment of riches enjoyable from beginning to end, replete with many memorable scenes and some stunning vocal performances by the leads and the ensemble; “The Crossing” and the Funeral scene, especially come to mind. Along the way, Huck and Jim are joined on their journey by two of the most amoral of characters; The Duke (Greg McCormick Allen) and The King (Richard Grey). These rapscallions, played by veteran Village Theatre performers, inject into the play laughter and insanity, but also the necessary drama which our heroes must overcome in the second half of the play. Toss in Tom Sawyer, live music and a walk on by none other than a banjo playing Mark Twain himself and you have a recipe for one enjoyable evening out.

Big River is a grand entertaining adventure with a message for today, so hop onboard the raft and take a wild romp down the mighty Mississippi River, you will not be disappointed. Though like Jim predicted for Huck, you may experience “considerable trouble and considerable joy”, but isn’t that just like life itself? I encourage you to catch Big River before it leaves town.

Big River runs September 12 – October 21, 2012 in Issaquah before moving to Everett from October 26 – November 18, 2012.
To purchase tickets: https://issaquah.villagetheatre.org/TheatreManager/95/login&event=437

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