Archikulture Digest

Big River

Big River

Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller

Book by William Hauptman

Directed by Steve MacKinnon

Musical Director John R. Mason III

Choreographed by Spencer Morrow

Starring Dustin Russell and Michael Mormon

Presented by St. Luke’s United Methodist Church

Windermere, FL</strong>

Turning a Great American Novel in to a Great Broadway Production is a tough job, but this massive show comes about as close as possible. Twain wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as the sequel to his wildly successful “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Twain transformed the maudlin and sappy fiction that filled the late 1800s; his characters were mischievous, alive, and skeptical of their received religiosity. Twain treated the black slaves as sympathetic humans and not just as the moral arguing points of abolitionists. Huck (Russell) lives with Widow Douglas (Julie Ohrberg) and the pious Miss Watson (Chelsea Scheid); his drunk Pap (Matt Stevens) ran off until he hears about the Indian gold Huck found. That brings Pap back like a shot but Huck wisely put the money in a trust; now Pap is furious. He drags Huck off to his remote cabin so he can beat the money out of him; there Huck fakes his own murder and escapes to hook up with runaway slave Jim (Morman). Down the river they go; meeting the refugees, hucksters and criminally amoral people that populated the frontier.

Mr. Russell carries this exceptionally long production, but he has plenty of support. Mr. Russell flips, handstands and spins around the multi-level set; I was front row left and never saw him sweat. Morman’s Jim spends most of the show looking over his shoulder, but when free of his chains he delivered heart wrenching songs like “Free at Last” and pairs up for duets including “Worlds Apart” and the show theme “River In The Rain.” Mr. Stevens sings the right wing anthem “Guv’ment” while Sage Starkey and Ken Rush played the scam artists working the river and mostly dodging the tar and feathers. Starkey is over the top fey and Rush blustery and imperious and together they are a great comic duo. A pack of slaves came on and off stage to deliver astonishing gospel music of hope; “How Blest Are We” and “Waiting for the Light to Shine” smoked. Off on one side of the stage John Mason directed a nine piece orchestra and on the other we heard a huge choir. No expense was spared tonight.

While this is a community production the staging impresses. The acting was top notch and in order to find a flaw I have to delve down into some minor lighting cues. The show runs three hours but never induces fidgets; and the material strikes out into some exciting and dangerous social territory. This being a church the story justification was careful explained by the pastor of St. Luke’s; she condemns child abuse. While there’s no question Pap Finn treated Huck with brutality, that’s not the theme here but a McGuffin to push Huck down river. The real theme this show explores questions whether sinning against unfair, inhuman laws is a damnable offence, or does Christ’s orders to “Treat others as you would be treated” override bad legislation? That’s left open, but Huck agonizes a good deal, Jim exits slavery with a Deus Ex Machina plot point, and we are all happy at the end. True, the sight lines are iffy, the air-conditioning noisy and windy, but this is worth the trip out to the speed trap side of town.

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