Friday, March 16, 2007

TMP’s fine ‘Big River’ rolls right along

Published in The News Tribune march 16, 2007
Pictured: Colin Madison as Huck Finn and Laird Thornton as Jim in "Big River," photo by Kat Dollarhide

“Big River” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse is a big musical with an intimate feel. I would rank it up there with “Ragtime” as one of the best musicals I’ve seen at TMP. It is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn told to the strains of a good old fashioned, foot-stomping hoedown, with a smattering of blues and gospel thrown in for good measure.

Like Twain’s classic tale, it can be appreciated on multiple levels: as an exciting adventure story, a ludicrous comedy, and as a dark but insightful look into a period of American history that opens the old wounds -- never fully healed -- of America’s racial strife.

Ernest Hemmingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” It is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all American stories. But it is an extremely controversial book that has been banned and reviled -- mostly because of Twain’s use of the N word.

The more controversial elements of the story are not glossed over in this musical rendition. Twain’s language is intact, and the institution of slavery is presented with naked realism.

Music and lyrics are by the incomparable Roger Miller -- who, in my opinion, is one of America’s most underrated songwriters.

The sets are designed by Judy Cullen, scenic design by Dori Conklin. It is good to see Cullen’s work again. She has a wonderful flare for color and texture. The set, while being dramatically stylized, has a warm and natural feel and allows for a variety of settings up and down the great Mississippi River without having to resort to complicated and distracting set changes.

The warmth and beauty of the sets are augmented by excellent lighting, designed by John Chenault. His lighting of silhouetted background figures is especially good. The only problem area is downstage left. When actors are spotlighted in that area, the bright spots wash out their faces.

Jon Douglas Rake does his usual excellent job of choreography. The dance numbers, while minimal, are exuberant -- especially those by Tom Sawyer (Jon Huntsman) and his buddies.

Colin Madison downplays the lead role of Huck Finn. Despite the straw hat and turned-up jeans and country-hick dialect, he comes across as a sweet and sensitive soul. Madison never intentional draws attention to himself. He sings with a soft country drawl that fits his character flawlessly.

Laird Thornton plays the runaway slave, Jim with quiet dignity. He is a big man with a deep baritone voice. On some of the gospel and rhythm-and-blues songs his singing is like a toned down Paul Robeson. Thornton and Madison’s quite different styles mesh nicely on their duets, most beautifully on “Muddy Water” and “Worlds Apart.”
Whereas Madison and Thornton downplay Huck and Jim, Huntsman takes an opposite tack, playing Tom Sawyer as an overblown parody of a country bumpkin who is quite taken with himself. His wild gestures are perfect, and he dives into his song and dance numbers with great glee. But he needs to calm down a bit when he speaks. He rushes his words so much that he’s sometimes hard to understand.

Outstanding in minor roles are Andrew Fry as Pap Finn (who also doubles as Sheriff Bell) and Jennifer Greene as Joanna Wilkes. Greene’s vocal range goes from country crooning on “You Oughta Be Here With Me” to operatic on “Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go.”

Stacie Pinkney Calkins plays the part of the slave Alice. She was unable to perform opening weekend due to a death in her family. Sarah Edwards filled in for Calkins. Edwards is a Centralia College student who played this role in a high school production last year for which she won a 5th Avenue High School Musical Theater Award nomination. She did an excellent job of filling in on short notice. Calkins -- a show-stopping performer at TMP as Effie in “Dreamgirls” and Sarah in “Ragtime” -- will play the part of Alice in subsequent performances.

This show runs slightly more than two and one-half hours with a 15-minute intermission. But it doesn’t seem that long.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through March 25, additional performances at 2 p.m. March 24
WHERE: The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave.
TICKETS: Adults $23, students/military $21, children 12 and younger $16
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

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