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  • Pamela Froman

Big River


Who doesn't love Mark Twain's irrepressible anti-hero Huck Finn, from the 1884 classic novel?

With Big River, we join this timeless creation as we wander down the mighty Mississippi to help save Jim, a slave, escape to freedom at the mouth of the Ohio River. Moved along by an award winning score from Roger Miller, the country music king, this fun-filled, yet suspenseful journey provides a brilliant theatrical celebration of Americana – both good and bad.

Huck and Jim's adventures along the way are hilarious and heartwarming. The play brings to life the favorite characters from the book. There's the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson (Lori Lee Gordon and Anne Frankl) – who try to reform Huck; Huck's drunken father, the sinister Pap Finn (John Dantona who also appears as the Duke) – who just wants money, the con men the King (Adam Womack) and the Duke – who will soon be tarred and feathered; the lovely Mary Jane Wilkes (Amanda Benjamin) and of course Huck's partner in crime, the infamous Tom Sawyer (Max Chester, who was hilarious and full of spark).

Huck is played with country flair by Jesse Saywell. He is fun-loving, sweet and of course completely uncontrolled! He belts out the songs in the production. The performance is charming and we all root for Huck! He narrates the story and we follow along eagerly. After the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both Huck and Tom are rich – and Huck has learned to read. But you can't keep a good boy down. He'll even tell you so in “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” Truthfully, there's no adventure playing a harp!

He ends up on the undertaking of a lifetime on a raft down the Mississippi with ex-slave Jim, who is performed by Donovan Wright. Wright has a stupendous voice full of longing and promise. He has run away to avoid being sold down the river. Despite his unease with the concept of abolitionism Huck offers to help Jim reach freedom in the North. They find a raft and get it afloat.

Soon after, they pick up two drifters who claim to be a Duke and a King. Huck knows they are con men, but is intrigued by their style anyway. These two actors play the quintessential bad guys! The King and the Duke commandeer the raft and plot to sell Jim back into slavery for their own profit in “When the Sun Goes Down In the South!” This is all unbeknownst to Huck.

Huck, Jim, the Duke, and the King wash ashore in Arkansas, and fleece the natives with a scheme in the song “The Royal Nonesuch.” It's about a horrifying creature that doesn't actually exist – and tricks the townspeople out of their money.

With that scheme a success they are onto the next con, where the King and Duke crash a funeral as impostors to get rich in “How Blest We Are.” Huck refuses to let the beautiful Mary Jane Wilkes be robbed and steals back her money as she soulfully sings for her father in “You Oughta Be Here With Me.”

Huck hides the gold in the coffin – and we are rooting for him! When Mary Jane realizes what Huck has done, she wants him to stay. Huck is moved, but he realizes that he has made a promise to Jim. Unfortunately the Duke has sold Jim back into slavery for forty dollars.

Huck resolves to free Jim again, even if it means he will go to Hell as a “dirty abolitionist.” He visits Mr. Phelps, the farmer to whom Jim has been sold, and is shocked to discover that he has been mistaken for, of all people, Tom Sawyer – who is coming for a visit. Tom arrives and is intercepted by Huck who explains everything and Tom, always up for a grand adventure, decides to help. The actors crate a great sense of camaraderie with their performances.

In the end Tom admits that Miss Watson has died, freeing Jim in her will. Huck learns a great deal about himself and what is really right or wrong. But no one will ever “civilize” him.

Big River runs through July 15, 2018 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave. in Simi Valley. For tickets call (805) 583-7900 or log onto www.simi-arts.org

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