The Manatee Players take on the adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
By Kay Kipling
Roger Miller’s award-winning musical Big River—relating the seriocomic adventures of one Huckleberry Finn—is in fact a big undertaking for a community theater, with a large-cast requirement and a shift in tone from the usual type of Broadway score to a more country-sounding one. Beyond those demands, the Manatee Players have gone a step further, designing their production to include American Sign Language conveyed by both hearing and non-hearing actors to accompany the spoken and sung words of the show.
It’s a tall order, and one that’s more successful at some moments than others. At the outset, it feels that the singing and signing take precedence over characterization; the cast is so busy with their expressive hands and vocalizations that bringing Huck, Tom and many other wonderful Mark Twain characters to full life seems to come second.
But by Act II, we’re more used to the concept and the storyline is well enough established that we have a chance to really feel some of the sweep of Twain’s novel. And it’s undeniable that presenting this piece with American Sign Language makes sense; you may recall the slave Jim’s touching story about his deaf daughter, as well as the impersonation by the “Duke” as a deaf and dumb fraud in a key part of the story. The connection is there.
So is the wonderful Roger Miller music, especially thrilling in the scenes when Huck (Anthony Lombard) and Jim (well played by Charles McKenzie) are rafting down the Mississippi River. Miller’s music and lyrics for Muddy Water and River in the Rain really capture the essence of Twain’s quintessentially American adventure. And later on, the sadder tunes Worlds Apart and You Oughta Be Here With Me (a pure country single) help flesh out the emotions of those singing them.
There are some questionable aspects to the show. One might wonder just why Huck’s Pap (Ken Basque) has to wear such a ridiculous beard, or why Zack Yowarski’s Tom seems more of a hick—and less likeable—than he should be.
But the heart of the show remains the relationship between Huck and Jim (with some assists from Heather Kopp as Mary Jane Wilkes and Players stalwart Denny Miller in one of his better roles as the con man “King”). And when it comes to Jim’s yearning to be free and to be united with his family, and to Huck’s desire to light out for the Western territories, Big River flows well enough.
Big River continues through March 4 at the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre; for ticket info call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com.