August 1, 2008

‘Big River’ is Big Fun at Theater Festival

By Joy Juedes

REDLANDS - "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; Persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

So begins "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and so says a sheet hanging over the stage at the Redlands Theatre Festival's production of "Big River."

"Big River" is a musical telling of "Huckleberry Finn" and, if I remember the story from high school English class, hews pretty closely to the book.

Country singer-songwriter Roger Miller wrote the score and did vocals for "Big River," which went to Broadway in 1985. Redlands Theatre Festival performed it in 1991 and 2000.

It's been a while since I read "Huck Finn," and "Big River" reminded me how funny it was. It's one of the few books I've read that made me laugh out loud - as did the Redlands Theatre Festival show.

The show begins with Mark Twain (David Critchlow) and the cast reciting the above preface. Then things kick off with a hoedown, with lots of stompin' and clappin.'

Most of the songs were humorous and fit more with the characters and the story than the serious ones. My favorite was "Guv'ment," in which Pap Finn (Clark Riddell) rails against the government while getting progressively more drunk. I also liked "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven," in which the two women raising Huck badger him about reading and religion.

Some of the serious songs were beautiful - "River in the Rain," a love song to the river; "The Crossing," sung by captured runaway slaves; and funeral songs. But they seemed more out of place, especially interspersed in the dialogue, which captured Twain's humor and the way he made his characters speak. The title song was about the only one that walked the line between lighthearted and somber.

Cedric Wright was wonderfully engaging as Huck. He never dropped the accent and yet was perfectly understandable. Huck stops and speaks directly to the audience throughout the show, and Wright did so very naturally.

Ernest Carter played Jim a little more intelligently than he appears in the book, and was both a good contrast and complement to Huck. He had a great singing voice and put a lot of feeling into both his singing and acting. The scene when he talked about his deaf daughter was particularly gripping.

And my favorites - the supporting players. Kathy Johnson as Widow Douglas and Diana Kiuttu as Miss Watson were able naggers. Jeffrey Ricca seemed to be having a grand time playing Tom Sawyer - my only issue is that he seemed too old. Riddell hammed it up perfectly as Pap Finn. "Guv'ment" was worth seeing on its own.

The show's two con artists were Ron Adams as the King and Bob Miller as the Duke. Adams, associate director of the festival, was hilarious. Miller, who also played Morrie in "Tuesdays with Morrie," was a perfect foil and understated yet equally silly partner to the Duke.

The set was appropriately minimal - a curtain was raised to reveal a river backdrop for the raft scenes. Two ladders could be raised and lowered from the set's top level; characters sometimes appeared up there (for example, Tom Sawyer pops out to sing a short, silly song about how pigs are man's best friend).

There were a few comic-relief moments inserted into the action. A small-town boy sings about how much he loves Arkansas, and Mark Twain wanders on and off the stage without saying anything.

It seemed that the most serious themes were best left in the book - the musical's oscillation between serious and funny didn't flow and seemed abrupt. It is important to include issues such as slavery, of course, and that was handled better than the rest. But the friendship between Jim and Huck doesn't have to be sung about; it can end up sounding too Disneyfied in a musical.

With or without the music, the cast of "Big River" did a superb job telling Twain's story. And watching it outside made it even better.

"Big River" is Aug. 5, 16 and 23 at Avice Meeker Sewall Theater at Prospect Park. Shows start at 8:30 p.m.; tickets are $18 each. Information: (909) 792-0562 or

E-mail Staff Writer Joy Juedes at [email protected]

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