PlayMakers Repertory Company and the Red Clay Ramblers — arguably North Carolina’s preeminent regional theater and the Tarheel State’s favorite traditional string band — have teamed up for a stirring rendition of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, starring Jason Edward Cook as that irrepressible 14-year-old scamp Huck and David Aron Damane as Miss Watson’s reluctant runaway slave Jim.
Jim and Huck’s picaresque adventures while rafting down the mighty Mississippi River — as reported with a wink and a nod in the landmark 1884 novel by American literary giant Mark Twain — are artfully abridged and deftly dramatized in Big River in a splendid script by William Hauptman. But it is the delightful down-home melodies, impertinent lyrics, and homespun harmonies penned by celebrated country-music singer/songwriter Roger Miller that make Big River such a magnificent piece of musical theater and helped the show’s original Broadway production to win seven 1985 Tony Awards®, including the Tonys for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical.
PlayMakers Repertory Company rarely performs musicals, and PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj confessed to the first-nighters last Saturday evening that Big River was his first big Broadway musical. But it is hard to imagine how PlayMakers and its bold and imaginative producing artistic director could have done a better job of staging Big River. The crackerjack PRC cast and ingenious creative team and the effervescent Red Clay Ramblers worked their theatrical and musical magic so well that just about every musical number became a showstopper, and the audience gave the performers and musicians a rock-star reception, complete with a loud and lengthy standing ovation at the final curtain — and they deserved every bit of that adulation.
Jason Edward Cook’s impish impersonation of Huck — the half-wild boy that the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson (DeDe Corvinus and Kelsey Didion) adopt and set out to “civilize” — is a real crowd-pleaser, but Huck’s irreverent attitudes and tomfoolery are eclipsed by the quiet dignity of David Aron Damane’s charismatic characterization of Jim. When Miss Watson decides to sell Jim to a plantation even farther from his wife and daughter, Jim decides that he must make a run for it, and hope to float down the Mississippi to a Free State, where he can earn the money to buy his family out of slavery.
With the Red Clay Ramblers providing buoyant accompaniment, Cook and Damane belt out “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain” with such feeling that they pack an extra-powerful emotional punch. In fact, either song would be worth the price of admission all by itself.
But this superlative PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of Big River has more, much more to make it a must-see musical and a frontrunner for Triangle theater 2011 top-10 lists. For starters, there David Damane’s heart-tugging performance as Jim. Jim usually stands quietly in the background while Huck hogs the spotlight. But Damane’s stage presence is so powerful that he cannot simply slip into the shadows between musical numbers.
Jason Cook gives a warm and winning performance as Huck Finn, and Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Scott Ripley are pips as the King and the Duke, a pair of shameless con men whom Jim and Huck save from an angry mob only to be betrayed by them later. Other actors making indelible impressions upon a most appreciative first-night audience include: Jimmy Kieffer as Huck’s abusive alcoholic father Pap Finn, who delivers a ringing condemnation in song of the infernally meddlesome “Guv’ment”; John Dreher as Huck’s impractical pal Tom Sawyer; Bryan Burton as the silly Young Fool who sings about “Arkansas”; and especially Ray Dooley — PlayMakers‘ Man of a Thousand Faces — as a trio of unforgettable characters, including Huck’s financial conservator Judge Thatcher, the English heir to a Missouri fortune Harvey Wilkes, and the irascible farmer and slave dealer Silas Phelps. LeDawna Akins and Toshia Cunningham as the slave Alice and her daughter also contribute a poignant duet. Indeed, they are standouts in an outstanding vocal cast.
Director Joe Haj and choreographer Casey Sams set a brisk pace that keeps the cast hopping, scenic designer McKay Coble works wonders — as usual — to transform the Paul Green Theatre’s thrust stage into various and sundry rustic locations in 19th century Missouri, and costume designer Bill Black’s eye-catching recreations of period costumes add to the show’s authenticity.
The Red Clay Ramblers, who include Big River musical director Jack Herrick (bass), Bland Simpson (piano), Clay Buckner (fiddle), Chris Frank (guitar), and Rob Ladd (drums), give a nice polish to each musical gem in Roger Miller’s memorable score; and their toe-tapping, finger-snapping instrumental accompaniment makes the audience want to stand up and cheer — even louder!
SECOND OPINION: April 12th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/04/12/1123327/funny-play-skilled-actors-fine.html; April 11th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Nick Andersen: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/04/big_river_offers_charming_musical_americana and April 6th preview by Nidhi Singh: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/04/red_clay_ramblers_return_to_stage_in_playmakers_big_river; April 9th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/04/playmakers-big-river-captures-the-heart-of-twains-tale/; April 8th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/12687316/article-Red-Clay-Ramblers-on-stage-on-the-Mississippi?instance=main_article (Note 1: You must register first to read this article). (Note 2: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 6th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/04/the-tony-winning-red-clay-ramblers-will-perform-in-playmakers-reps-production-of-big-river/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents BIG RIVER at 7:30 p.m. April 12-15, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 16, 2 p.m. April 17, 7:30 p.m. April 19-22, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 23, and 2 p.m. April 24 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
TICKETS: $10-$35, except $45 Opening Night show and reception of April 9th.
BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://vimeo.com/21937354 and http://vimeo.com/21609874. BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: On April 13th and 17th, there will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors.
NOTE 2: There will be 10:30 a.m. Student Matinee Performances on April 13th and April 21st (for details, see http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/studentmatinee.aspx).
NOTE 3: The Prologue Series, created by PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Library, will present a pre-show conversation with a member of the PlayMakers creative team at the library at 12 noon on April 16th.
NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 7:30 p.m. April 19th performance, which will also be sign-language interpreted.
NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://www.ldf.org/home/) and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by John Tisdale, DMin, after the 7:30 p.m. April 23rd and 2 p.m. April 24th performances.
The Musical: http://www.rnh.com/show/18/Big-River (R&H Theatricals), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_River_(musical) (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=2018 (Internet Broadway Database).
Roger Miller: http://www.rogermiller.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Miller (Wikipedia).
William Hauptman: http://williamhauptman.net/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hauptman (Wikipedia).
The Novel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventures_of_Huckleberry_Finn (Wikipedia).
The Novel (e-text): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/76 (Project Gutenberg).
Mark Twain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_twain (Wikipedia).
Red Clay Ramblers: http://www.redclayramblers.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Clay_Ramblers (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.