AUGUSTA, Mich.—Take a legendary American humorist and an award-winning country singer/songwriter, put them together and the result is “Big River,” a musical by the late Roger Miller, adapted from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain ne Samuel Clemens. Tuesday evening, The Barn Theatre opened its production of this musical journey, a multi (7)-Tony Award winning show that, for some reason, rarely returns to touring, regional or community stages. Whatever the reasons, The Barn production offers a laugh-filled look at the adventures of Huck (Kevin White) and Jim (Todd M. Kryger), a runaway slave hoping to make it to the free city of Cairo, Ill.
The music ranges from up tempo —”A Hand for the Hog,” is delivered by an increasingly rowdy Eric Morris as Tom Sawyer —to temperate ballads; “Leavin’s Not The Only Way to Go,” a trio with Huck, Jim and Mary Jane Wilkes (Jessica Malashevich) , “River in The Rain” and “Muddy Water.” White, who is on stage and in motion almost continually through the 2 hour 40 minute show, delivers a solid but happily not overdone portrait of the boy who yearns for a free life and holds the bonds of friendship lasting. Not only does he sing six of the show’s 17 songs (including three solos), he also serves as narrator of the piece, stepping out of the ongoing action to deliver his own interpretation of the situation. Kryger is a large and solid anchor for the eager Huck and his equally large basso is well-served in their duets as well as in “Free at Last.” He is the calming influence in the duo’s sometimes frantic escapades, Delivering such a sympathetic character makes it much more difficult to hear the word “nigger” applied to him as it is frequently. I know it was common in the show’s time setting (1840) but it made us increasingly uncomfortable. Maybe that was the point. The comic highlight of this “River” is Eric Parker as The Duke who, with Gregg Rehrigg as The King, cons his way up and down the river selling highly potent patent medicine. Parker is a skilled comedian who knows just when to hit a line and when to throw one away for maximum effect. Evidence of this is obvious in the sequence in which the con men seek to swindle a recent widow and he has been introduced as a deaf mute. With a few squeeks and rolling eyes, he steals the scene. He and Rehrigg let it all hang out in “The Royal Nonesuch.” The nine-piece orchestra under the direction of John Jay Espino do justice to Miller’s score, complete with harmonica and fiddle. The choreography by Kevin Field was appropriately energetic as delivered by the 20-plus ensemble members most of whom played several roles. Much of the “action” takes place on a small raft as Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi. Understandably, movement here is minimal. This makes it more important for movement to return when the narrative hits the shore. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen The soloists merely stand in place during the emotional ballads (which are not enhanced by the bland lighting design) which makes the second act seem twice as long as it actually is.
“Big River” plays through Aug. 23. Shows are at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday in the theater on M-96 between Augusta and Galesburg. Tickets are $29. Call (269) 731-4121 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily or visit www.barntheatre.com