Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Pippin
The Studio Series at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) has long been an excellent (and free) way for audiences to see shows, older and newer, in a small, intimate setting and performed by many of CCM?s very talented students. The current musical in this series, Big River, offers these pre-professionals the opportunity to take on a diverse group of roles and emotions in an energetic and well-performed production.
A musicalization of Mark Twain's novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Big River follows young Huck in pre-Civil War America. The show won the 1985 Tony for Best Musical (in an admittedly weak year). Huck is torn between the choices of living a wild, responsibility-free life with his abusive drunken father versus holding to the strict expectations of the townsfolk who have taken him in. The young protagonist also has to deal with his confusion about what is right or wrong in the world. Huck stages his own death so he can seek adventures elsewhere, and he and runaway slave Jim board a raft nd head down the Mississippi. There, they find considerable trouble and considerable joy as they encounter a slew of unique characters and situations. They also learn a lot about friendship and themselves.
The book for musical is by William Hauptman. The first act has a considerably stronger narrative than the second, which tends to meander somewhat. Also, the main storytelling device used is narration, provided by Huck. The audience is too often told what happened rather than shown, but this does provide an efficiency given the large story to tell. There's a good deal of effectively written humor and relationship-building dialogue, and the book flows quickly with plenty of humor, action, and conflict. The themes of friendship and freedom (from slavery, abusive fathers, societal expectations) are universal, and the story has lots of social and historical relevance, and a moral conscience. Big River includes the use of the N-word quite a lot, which though true to the story and source material, may be off-putting to many.
The score, by the late country songwriter Roger Miller, contains songs with catchy melodies that are a very good fit to the story. Miller's work includes some very effective spirituals ("The Crossing," "How Blest We Are," "Free at Last") and wonderful anthems and duets for Huck and Jim ("River In the Rain," "Muddy Water"). Huck's spirited "Waitin' For the Light to Shine" (where he longs to know his place in the world) and the plaintive trio "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" are also musical highlights. However, the lyrics at times are not up to level of the music, and very few songs really advance the plot. There are a number of comedic songs included as well, but they rarely land with the same punch as the more emotional tunes. Still, the score is one that audiences will likely go home humming.
Director Vince DeGeorge provides very active blocking, and an apt tone and pace throughout. Mr. DeGeorge incorporates many inventive and appropriate touches which enhance the theatricality of the piece as well. His decision to use the actors portraying slaves to move all of the set pieces is striking and goes far in driving home the point of the unfairness of slavery. Choreographer Patti James makes good use of the ensemble in "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven" and "The Royal Nonesuch," and starts out the show with a high-octane dance to the overture. Steve Goers thrillingly leads a superb sounding band.
Karl Amundson skillfully portrays Huck as a carefree spirit, but rough around the edges and easily frustrated as he grapples with the morality of the world around him. He also sings very well, excelling especially during the duets as he blends and harmonizes. As the slave Jim, Phillip Johnson supplies impassioned and soulful vocals, and conveys the necessary dignity, humility, and determination for the role. While each supporting cast member displays significant talent and commitment to their roles, a few are especially noteworthy: Hannah Kornfeld (a fierce Miss Watson and tender Sally Phelps), Madeline Lynch (a well-meaning Widow Douglas), Adam Zeph (an over-the-top Shakespearian as Duke), Jenny Mollet (vocally impressive as Alice), Ciara Harris (a fervent singer as Alice's daughter), Gina Santare (an excellent vocalist and endearing as Mary Jane Wilkes), and Zach Erhardt (a comedic Tom Sawyer).
The all-student design team does an outstanding job for this show. The scenic design by Katelyn Budke incorporates a two-tiered set made of a natural wood befitting the setting, a raked main section of the stage which is helpful for audience viewing in the studio space, and a very effective use of curtains. The lighting by CJ Mellides makes good use of shadows and effects which convey the outdoor locales of the story and passage of time, as well a beautiful color palette behind the aforementioned curtains. The costumes by Tommy Cobau are period appropriate and nicely detailed (showing different social tiers, even among the slaves), and sound designer Matt D. Birchmeier includes some well-suited echo effects for when the characters are in the cave.
Big River is a good choice for CCM, as it offers some dramatic and comedic challenges to its students while also supplying the audience the opportunity to hear beautiful vocally renderings of a highly melodic score. CCM's production is first rate with strong performances, solid direction and dances, and some of the best design elements seen in the studio space to date.
Big River played at CCM from October 8 - 10, 2015.-- Scott Cain