Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo Park has put runaways Huck and Jim back on a raft down the mighty Missisippi in a revamped version of the musical Big River, itself based on Mark Twain’s tale. This time, Huckleberry Finn’s Big River is for today’s young audiences.
Huckleberry Finn is one of the most challenged American novels due to the language of the original story, especially the vernacular language Mark Twain included to describe Jim and other slaves. Adventure Theatre MTC artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt utilized members of the Washington DC African-American community as consensus builders, giving valuable input as to the language utilized in this musical revisal. The idea, in Bobbitt’s words was to “engage children with a contemporary and memorable way” that does not re-injure people with offensive language. “This is an American story that we can all be proud of creating together.”
Condensing the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical down to a brisk 70 minutes, this world premiere revisal takes a few artistic liberties to help reshape it into a piece for the young and young at heart. Happily, the results are engaging from start to finish.
Audiences of any age will enjoy the adventures of young Huckleberry, pulled along by the charming and vibrant portrayal of Huckleberry Finn by Max Gerecht. Capturing the down-home essence of Mark Twain’s scrappy hero, Gerecht immediately endears himself to the audience, and sings Roger Miller songs with gusto.
Adventure Theatre/MTC has two casts for this production. All performers mentioned here are from the Blue Cast.
One of the revisions of this production is to make Jim, the runaway slave, a friend to Huck and the young slave of Huck’s foster parent, the Widow Douglas. Now Huck and Jim are the same age and their familiarity helps solidify the bond once they both run away from home, with the stakes immediately raised for the African-American slave who wishes to make his way north to earn money and free his mother and sister. With a powerful, young baritone voice and confident stage presence, Nathan Butts is Jim. Butts brings gravitas to the role and has immediate connection with Gerecht’s Finn. One of the many highlights of the show is the song “Free at Last,” which Butts sings beautifully.
Huckleberry Finn’s Big River
closes March 10, 2019
Details and tickets
The rest of the skillful cast alternates between storytellers in neutral modern dress and characters from the story in period garb, designed with fine detail by Jeffrey Meek. The performers easily move between addressing the audience to engaging with Huck and Jim on their perilous journey. Anna Marie C. Shockey is Mary Jane, the young lady Huck takes a shine to. Shockey brings maturity and her pleasant soprano voice to the stage.
As a parallel to Huck and Jim, Mary Jane has her own slave and friend, Alice, played with conviction by Alexa Givens. Like Jim to Huck, Alice is more of a friend to Mary Jane in this iteration of the story and their owners are conflicted about owning a slave. The story not only brings to life the struggle for freedom by the enslaved young African-Americans, but the conflict in their friends’ hearts at such injustice. So, you could say that Huckleberry Finn’s Big River has enlightened the story and characters to make it even more contemporary. In other words, Huck is woke.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
Losing none of the adventure and comic relief either, Matthew Schleigh and Joshua Simon bring to life the itinerant scalawags and ne’er dowells, the Duke and the King, respectively. The comic pair capture not only the over the top antics but the danger these characters bring to Huck and Jim’s life. And just like in Twain’s original book, they receive their just desserts (with tar and feathers on top) for their skullduggery.
Director Michael Baron has staged Huckleberry Finn’s Big River to optimize the intimate space at Adventure Theatre, fully utilizing the rustic set (Debra Kim Sevigny), highlighted by Huck and Jim’s mobile raft and a gorgeous, stylized stained glass rendering of the Mississippi River as a backdrop. The effective lighting designed by Harold Burgess provides the appropriate atmosphere throughout.
The creators have succeeded in fashioning a version of Twain’s American classic that sings with a renewed voice, celebrating personal freedom for all. I expect this TYA version of the musical will have a long life outside of Glen Echo as other theatres seek to produce stories that echo the diversity of our times.
Production note: Adventure Theatre MTC produced this version of Big River as a joint production with the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. The Rodgers and Hammerstein office was also involved, being the rights holder to the original musical production, with songs by the late Country great Roger Miller (“King of the Road) and book by playwright William Hauptman, who has done the revisions to the script. Miller’s music has been carefully re-orchestrated by William Yanesh, retaining the Country music roots of the score.
Huckleberry Finn’s Big River Revised Book by William Hauptman, Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller . New arrangements and orchestrations by William Yanesh . Directed by Michael Baron . Featuring: Madisyn Brown, Nathan Butts, Ella Coulson, Max Gerecht, Alexa Givens, Calvin Malone, Zach Rakotomaniraka, Matthew Schleigh, Jonah Schwartz, Anna Marie C. Shockey, Sarah Anne Sillers, Joshua Simon, Meredith Eib, and Ariel Messeca . Music Director: Tiffany Holmes . Scenic Design: Debra Kim Sevigny . Costume Design: Jeffrey Meek . Lighting Designer: Harold Burgess . Sound Designer: Kevin Alexander . Stage Manager: Kirsten E. Parker . Produced by Adventure Theatre MTC . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.
You must be logged in to post a comment.