There are very few shows that can honestly be referred to as “perfect,” but PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an exception. The story, a retelling of Mark Twain’s 1884 masterpiece, delights and enthralls modern audiences without losing any of the charm or poignancy of the original tale. Featuring a variety of catchy but not overwhelming tunes by Roger Miller and intricate, perfectly timed choreography by Casey Sams, this is the ideal musical for people who hate musicals. Here, the story of Huck (Jason Edward Cook) and Jim’s (David Aaron Damane) unlikely friendship is the main focus, and the music only serves as an unobtrusive and thoroughly enjoyable backdrop. The large cast moves seamlessly during musical performances, making the dance numbers feel completely natural and relevant to the story.
Scenes that feature Huck and the other “children” burst with believable, youthful energy, despite the fact that all of the performers are adults. John Dreher’s imaginative, mischievous Tom Sawyer is particularly entertaining. Plus, there’s lots of fun to be had in Huck’s outrageous dealings with two lively con-artists, a “king” (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and a “duke” (Scott Ripley). Yet, the story bounces perfectly from fun, over the top moments to subtle emotional scenes. The touching friendship that slowly forms between Huck and Jim, and Huck’s struggle over right and wrong are gracefully touched upon without even a hint of sappiness or melodrama.
While the entire cast, down to the smallest bit player is strong, Cook and Damane shine brighter than the rest. It’s hard to believe the original story wasn’t written with Cook in mind; he so perfectly captures the confusion and hidden sweetness of this young and much beloved character. And Damane’s booming, rich voice and surprising vulnerability makes Jim more well-rounded and fascinating than even Twain himself did.
Beautiful costumes by Bill Black, a functional but serene set by McKay Coble, and the gentle sounds of The Red Clay Ramblers combine with flawless direction by Joseph Haj to present a show that is completely unforgettable. Big River will run through Sunday, April 24. For tickets or more information, visit playmakersrep.org or call (919) 962-7529.