Walking into the premier of Big River, the musical rendition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Village Theatre in Issaquah, I was skeptical. How exactly would showtunes jive with this beloved American classic that I had read and reread since middle school. How would the charm of Jim and Huck’s candor conversations translate in a live performance? Would Pap still scare me? Would the lightheartedness of Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain’s satire harmonize with the seriousness of slavery?
In other words, would the musical do its job? Would it retell the classic in a way that stayed true to the written masterpiece while reinventing it into, not only a new experience but one with high kicks, twirls and jazz hands?
I think it did exactly that. Sure, some of the scenes weren’t what I had envisioned growing up with the novel. They were reinvented with a twist of Broadway charisma. I had to leave my own impressions of the story behind and focus on what was right in front of me; a fun, energizing production full of great musical talent and perfected acting. It wasn’t the same experience as reading the book, it lacked things and it gained things. But most importantly, it held on to the heart of the novel. It told a great American tale that tackled some of our darkest history with an adventure full of antics, jokes, and high notes. If anything the playful musical scenes added quirkiness to the already engrained satire and the serious songs added an immeasurable depth to the characters.
What I missed from the performance was also what I love about the new creation. The character of Jim (played by Rodney Hicks) seemed far more eloquent than the character in the novel. I missed Twain’s mangled diction. However, hearing the strength in Hicks’ voice added another dimension to his character. The character of Jim seemed even more real and compelling coming from an African American’s performance. The first time Hicks began to sing I was in awe. He along with the cast of slaves absolutely blew me away with their singing ability. They weren’t just making sound they were breathing raw emotion into the story. They were telling their tale with their own style of bold music, with their real voices for once. Having an African American cast speak their own words and sing their own songs added a depth to the storyline that affected me in a way I never imagined.
Randy Scholz as Huck Finn, John David Scott as Tom Sawyer and David Anthony Lewis and Pap were also remarkable. Scholz embodied Huck’s boyish nature while balancing his selfishness and sweetness. Scott was the perfect dose of comic relief and Lewis delivered as the frightening, greasy haired, drunken father I remember fearing as a girl.
Overall, the cast and crew at Village Theatre did an exceptional job of turning Twain’s story into a different experience that offered new depths to the classic. Just be sure to hang your own impressions at the door, sit back and let the theater tell the story its own way.
Big River is playing at the Village Theatre in Issaquah through Oct 21 and in Everett from Oct 26-Nov. 18. Click here for tickets.
Photos by Jay Koh. Property of Village Theatre.
Video is property of Village Theatre.