Theater
Review
"Big River"

Produced by: TheatreWorks
Book by William Hauptman; music and lyrics by Roger Miller; based on the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Featuring: Alex Goley, James Monroe Iglehart, Jackson Davis, Gary S. Martinez, Scott Reardon, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Alison Ewing, Jesse Caldwell, Martin Rojas Dietrich, Matthew Thomas Provencal, Cyril Jamal Cooper, Katie Jane Martin, Brenna Wahl, Dawn L. Troupe, Tracy Camp, Christopher Prescott Carter, Layce Lynne Kieu and Farah Sanders.
Scenic design by: Joe Ragey
Costume design by: B Modern
When: Through December 30, 2012
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets: $23-$73. (Discounts available for students, educators, seniors.) Call 650-463-1960 or got to theatreworks.org.

See some of the designs for this production by Joe Ragey and B Modern.

Read John Orr's preview feature for "Big River," which includes interviews with director Robert Kelley and with actor Alex Goley.
Something special
this way comes

TheatreWorks Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley calls "Big River" a gift to the TheatreWorks community — the fans and supporters who keep coming to the plays. And that it is.

But, the cast and musicians of "Big River" decided to give a gift to TheatreWorks as well. William Liberatore, who conducts the seven-piece orchestra for the show, said that the cast, during rehearsals, used their dinner breaks to record holiday music, in the style of the characters they play in "Big River."

They made it into a CD, and the CD is on sale in the lobby at the show, with proceeds going to TheatreWorks.

"We wanted to say thank you to TheatreWorks for all the opportunities it's given us," explained Liberatore.

Nice thing, this.

-- John Orr

Big River
Mark Kitaoka / TheatreWorks
Alex Goley, as Huck, center, gets a lecture from Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Widow Douglas, left, and Alison Ewing as Miss Watson in "Big River," playing through December 30, 2012, at TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review of "Big River" in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Read Karen D'Souza's review of "Big River" in the San Jose Mercury News.
Mark Twain
Unknown
Mark Twain
Buy an unabridged, illustrated paperback copy of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.

Buy an unabridged, illustrated paperback copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.

Buy a hardback copy of "Letters from the Earth" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.
Big River
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Martin Rojas Dietrich as the King, Alex Goley as Huck, Jackson Davis as the Duke and James Monroe Iglehart as Jim, from left, in "Big River," at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, California, through December 30, 2012.
'Big River' runs deep and funny
in TheatreWorks production
Good music, great voices and a lot of laughs add up to a fine time in the theater
December 3, 2012

Having never seen the show, I was surprised by the excellence of Roger Miller's score for "Big River," as staged by TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

Sure, I'd liked Miller's pop hits, such as "Dang Me" and "King of the Road," and I knew that Miller had won a Tony for best score for his "Big River" music.

But still I was thrilled when I heard Alex Goley's excellent voice merge with James Monroe Iglehart's excellent voice in beautiful, timbre-rich harmonies, in the first-act songs "Muddy Water" and "River in the Rain," and in other tunes.

Greatness.

Also fabulous were the big chorus numbers involving large numbers of the 18-member cast — Miller didn't just write pretty songs, he set up stepped counter melodies, with different parts of the cast singing different words on different rhythms, and explored many different ways for a story to be told through music.

Pretty impressive work for the guy who wrote the song "Dang Me."

It's a delightful show, with William Hauptman's excellent book telling the essential story of Mark Twain's deceptively brilliant novel, and the aforementioned fabulous music.

Huck is a great kid with a good heart, raised in a time when the law was that human beings could own other human beings as slaves. Huck probably never thought about it much. It's just the way things were.

But in this great story, Huck at first runs away himself — to get away from his drunken Pap — and then helps a runaway slave, Jim, make good his escape, which is a much more dangerous thing. But off they go, floating down the Mississippi River on a wooden raft.

During their shared adventure, Huck has to take responsibility for himself, and wake up to the hard realities of life along the Mississippi River in 1840. Maybe people will call him a "dirty abolitionist," he says, but he makes the choice to do the right thing anyway. It's maybe the best coming-of-age story ever written.

TheatreWorks has done a fabulous job with "Big River," which director Robert Kelley calls a holiday gift to the community.

Goley is charming and amusing as Huck, carrying the show with lots of asides to the audience in addition to all the action and the singing. When Katie Jane Martin, as Mary Jane Wilkes, surprises him with a kiss, the look he gives the audience completely cracked up my 11-year-old son and pretty much everyone else in the auditorium.

Lots of very good acting going on with Goley, but his voice is something even more special. Sure, Huck is this goofy and good-hearted kid, but who knew he could sing like that?

Big River
Mark Kitaoka / TheatreWorks
James Monroe Iglehart, left, and Alex Goley in "Big River." Their duets in the show, with music by Roger Miller, are fabulous.

(While watching and admiring Goley's vocal chops I had the thought, not for the first time, that it is a wonderful thing that there are people like him who choose to perform in stage musicals instead of running off to become rock stars.)

Iglehart is well known and admired by TheatreWorks audiences from a number of shows, notably "Memphis." He was in the show when it premiered at TheatreWorks, then had a good run with it on Broadway. He recently performed at Anything Goes, a gala fundraiser for TheatreWorks.

Iglehart has a lot of stage presence, and it fits so well with who Jim is. Iglehart looks like the tallest, biggest, strongest man on stage, but still transmits Jim's inner goodness, his deep kindness, at all times, even when Huck hurts him. It is a subtle and impressive thing.

There is a moment when Huck has realized that Jim isn't just a slave, Jim is his friend, and that his friend is deserving of respect. Jim has been abused and painted blue by other characters, with Huck's tacit approval, and now Huck knows it was wrong to have let it happen. Goley, as the 13- or 14-year-old Huck, uses rags to clean the paint off the huge man, gently wiping it off his face, and it is a beautiful, human moment, maybe the richest of the show. It is symbolic: There isn't the white race, there isn't the black race; there is only the human race, and we must all help each other to get through this difficult life.

Jackson Davis, recently seen as Beethoven's assistant in "33 Variations," and a veteran of pretty much every stage in the Bay Area, was a pure joy to watch as The Duke, one of two scalawags saved by Huck and Jim.

The Duke and The King (a very funny turn by Martin Rojas Dietrich) are a couple of low-life hustlers who involve our heroes in various schemes, including when they put on "The Royal Nonesuch" to sucker some money out of the local rubes.

Everybody sing:

"She's got one big breast

In the middle of her chest

And an eye in the middle of her nose

So says I,

If you look her in the eye

Then you're better off looking up her nose."

And while Dietrich will appear as the Royal Nonesuch, before that, Davis delivers The Duke's great Shakespearean soliloquy:

"To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin

That makes calamity of so long a life;

For who would fardels bear,

Till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane

But that the fear of something after death

Murders the innocent sleep."

Ha ha! It's a hilarious speech, and Davis delivers it with a gleam in his eye that is both in character and also telegraphs his very real joy in the part — and the audience at Lucie Stern loved it, cracking up throughout at the mishmash of Shakespeare and Davis' hilarious, wonderful performance.

Joe Ragey's set welcomes the audience to the rustic Mississippi River Valley with lots of wood planking, ropes tied here and there and ladders that lead to trees and caves and second story bedrooms, as required. Rocks and shrubbery and a raft roll in and roll out again. B Modern's costumes are fabulous — respectable ladies' home dresses, slaves in 'do rags, The Duke and The King first in rags, then in ill-gotten but handsome suits.

Pamila Z. Gray's lighting opens new worlds for caught slaves being carried away in chains and passengers on a steamboat searching for the lost Huck. Sound Designer Jeff Mockus did a fine job in the sometimes aurally difficult auditorium. And hats off to dialect coach Kimily Conkle, who not only had to teach different sounds for different places on the river, but helped several actors take on different parts.

I particularly liked Gary S. Martinez' voice, as Pap Finn, Lafe, Harvey Wilkes and Doctor — four roles, and he is a man with a distinctive, mellifluous voice. Yet he created four very different characters and was great in each.

TheatreWorks Music Director William Liberatore conducted a fine orchestra, that besides performing the music with Liberatore's usual excellence, did a fine job barking, as our heroes were being pursued by a pack of dogs.

One rough spot was Tracy Camp's performance during one of the gospel numbers, "How Blest We Are," when she didn't sing so much as screech a few lines. That happens. Maybe it was an off night for her, or maybe somebody ought to tweak the melody line a bit to make those notes reachable. Camp has a beautiful voice overall, and brings great passion to the song, but those brief moments were a distraction.

Another modest booboo was when someone's mustache started dropping, about half way through a speech. Sometimes the quick costume changes don't go as designed!

But this is a delightful and memorable show. Thank you, Kelley and TheatreWorks, for the lovely gift.

Big River
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Alex Goley as Huck Finn, center front, is soundly, roundly lectured by a lot of people in the song "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven," the opening number of "Big River." From left are Cyril Jamal Cooper, Layce Lynne Kieu, Tracy Camp, Scott Reardon, Katie Jane Martin, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, James Monroe Iglehart, Alex Goley, Alison Ewing (front), Martin Rojas Dietrich (back), Matt Provencal, Brenna Wahl, Dawn L. Troupe, Christopher Prescott Carter, Farah Sanders and Gary S. Martinez (on floor, extreme right).


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