Reporter Jackie Majerus reviewed the latest musical at the Goodspeed Opera House:
Aside from the banks of the Mississippi River, it's hard to imagine a more fitting place for theatergoers to see "Big River" than at the Goodspeed Opera House.
The fabulously fun musical, based on Mark Twain's masterpiece, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," is playing through Sunday, Nov. 30 at the charming theater on the bank of the Connecticut River.
Directed by Rob Ruggiero, and produced for Goodspeed by Michael P. Price, the show uses a stellar cast, clever staging and a wonderful array of music to bring Twain's novel, or parts of it, to life. While the length of the novel makes it impossible to include every scene and detail, "Big River" does a remarkable job of squeezing in quite a bit.
Will Reynolds, who plays Huck, a poor white boy who fakes his own death to escape his abusive father, and Russell Joel Brown, who plays Jim, a runaway slave, beautifully carry the story of their journey together down the Mighty Mississippi. They make a great on-stage team and the chemistry between them lends credibility as the show focuses on their growing bond of friendship.
While Reynolds shines in his role, Brown steals the show with a stunning performance filled with honesty and grace.
Roger Miller's wide array of music and lyrics keeps the show rolling, but also provide some exceptionally moving moments.
It includes the funny "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?" by the ensemble and "Guv'ment" by Huck's drunken father, Pap Finn, convincingly played by Kenneth Cavett and the poignant "Worlds Apart" by Jim and Huck.
The character of The Musician, a strolling, continuous onstage presence, adds depth to the show. Portrayed by David Lutken, The Musician doesn't speak, but plays a variety of instruments, often just strumming softly in the background while the story continues.
"Big River" has several settings, and this production does a good job of depicting them.
Some of the show takes place with Huck and Jim on the raft. Their craft, which moves about on stage, works well, especially when the scenery gets rolled back to reveal a glorious, illuminated view of the Mississippi River behind them.
Fans of Twain's novel should be delighted with "Big River," and those who haven't read the book may decide to pick it up after they see the show.
Beyond putting on a terrific show, the cast and theater itself has shown it has a generous heart.
To prepare for their roles in the show, the cast took a tour of The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, according to information released by the theater.
They were so taken with it that they decided to take up a collection for the financially struggling historic landmark and museum instead of exchanging gifts on opening night, which is the tradition at Goodspeed. The collection netted a gift to the museum of $1,135.
The show is appropriate for teens and adults, and for children who are familiar with the book. There is smoking depicted and the occasional use of a racial slur.
Tickets to "Big River" are $26 to $63. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
On Thursday, Nov. 20, the performance includes a post-show discussion with the cast and a guest from The Mark Twain House and Museum.
During Thanksgiving week, the schedule changes, and Goodspeed will be holding its annual food drive to benefit the East Haddam Food Bank.
Shows Thanksgiving week will be Monday, November 24, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Friday, November 28, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Saturday, November 29, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, November 30, at 2 and 6:30 p.m.
Anyone who brings a non-perishable food item to either performance on Monday, Nov. 24 gets $10 off the ticket price.
For a complete schedule and tickets call the box office at (860)873-8668, or see the theater's website at www.goodspeed.org.
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