Big River, now onstage at Venice Theatre, is a sprawling, always-on-the-move musical epic that demands enormous energy from its cast and crew. And no wonder; it is, of course, based on the equally sprawling classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—the book about which Ernest Hemingway is always quoted as saying: “All American literature comes from…”
Beloved as the book was and is, it still must have been a bear to adapt to the stage, as witness failed earlier attempts before this Roger Miller-William Hauptman version bowed in the 1980s. So many characters, so many stories to tell within the overall adventure, so hard to get Mark Twain’s voice just right. Miller and Hauptman did it as well as anyone could have hoped for.
The VT production, directed and choreographed by Brad Wages, is probably more than most could have hoped for, too, and it brings to mind once more how Venice Theatre has been unafraid to tackle these large-scale pieces of Americana (i.e., last year’s hit, Ragtime). Occasionally the constant high energy level and broad comedy may exhaust the audience a little (and surely must take it out of the players), but overall it’s impressive.
Wages is blessed with some strong actors in lead roles. Tony DeNiro, who’s been taking to the VT stage since he was very young (he still is, of course), bounces out from the beginning with the sly, engaging personality that is Huck Finn, immediately drawing us in. He skips, he dances, he sings, he deals with his drunken Pap (another DeNiro here, father Phil, who’s amusing on the early diatribe number Guv’ment) and he bonds with the runaway slave, Jim (Brandon Michael Fleming, who delivers songs including Worlds Apart and Free at Last with heartfelt passion).
Their raft trip down the Mississippi River (made more real by the painted backdrop from scenic designer Jason Bolen) is an adventure for us as well as them, as they come across those familiar rascals the King and Duke (Travis Rose and Ross Boehringer, occasionally too over the top even for these old frauds, but still entertaining) and run into the sorrowing Wilkes family and a fortune in gold. Throw in Huck’s friends, “The Boys” (especially the troublemaking Tom Sawyer, played with just the right amount of irritating insouciance by Hunter Cross), Miller’s mix of country and gospel tunes, and, most importantly, the feeling of the inner journey made by Huck as well, as he and we confront slavery and prejudice, and you savor the distinctive Twain flavor throughout.
Big River is also well served by Nicholas Hartman’s costume designs (especially love the King and Duke’s garish threads) and musical director Drew Rienstra and his band; it’s great to hear those fiddle/banjo/harmonica sounds played live.
The show continues through Nov. 27; call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com for tickets.