Thursday, February 9, 2012

Faulkner: "Big River"

Two years after a production in Wetumpka. Marilyn Swears [Music Director], Trey Holladay, Dave Hanlein, and Barbra Blommers are again the talented orchestra for Faulkner University's presentation of Roger Miller's (music & lyrics) & William Hauptman's (book) Big River based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that opened on Thursday night to a welcoming crowd.

Played by an ensemble of actors from Faulkner and the Montgomery community, Big River is true to Twain's sensibilities concerning slavery and the fundamental conflict in young Huck between what he "believes" and what he "knows" is right. -- Central to the story is the relationship between the rustic white runaway schoolboy Huck [Chase McMichen] and a black runaway slave Jim [Tony Davison]. Jim naively sees things as they really are, while Huck wrestles with his conscience as he fibs in order to protect his companion from being caught while they float along the Mississippi River in pursuit of adventures and each one's version of freedom.

Mark Twain's classic is given a few new twists by director Angela Dickson and her talented company, while keeping the music as its centerpoint. [Faulkner is indeed fortunate in having such strong and confident singers in all the featured roles, and the Chorus numbers are powerful, filling the house with dynamic harmonies.] One such twist is using many of the secondary characters as supernumaries who provide many of the sound effects and who give hand props to other actors from the sidelines. This convention works to a degree, but occasionally it pulls focus away from the main action, important dialogue, or song lyrics that are meant to develop character relationships or move the action forward.

Huck's story is narrated first by Mark Twain himself [Roy Goldfinger], and then is taken up by Huck as it is in the novel. Mr. McMichen has a youthfully charming smile that befits Huck and which gets him out of numerous scrapes with his drunken ne'er-do-well Pap [Matt Dickson], the Widow Douglas [Tracy Stiff] and Miss Watson [Jesse Alston] who try to "civilize" him, "the law", and various others, including two con-men -- the King & the Duke [Roy Goldfinger & Matt Dickson again] -- as he is abetted by Tom Sawyer [Allen Young], whose ever-increasing sense of dramatic adventure frequently gets them in and out of trouble, and makes Jim the unfortunate victim.

There is a sense of "a boy's adventure story" in this production, a trait well known to ardent Twain readers; but that is not the thrust of either the novel or the musical adaptation of it. -- Yes, there are diverting songs like "Do Ya Wanna Go To Heaven" and "The Boys" that set up for young and old alike how many young people flaunt authority and rebel against their "better" natures in order to avoid responsibility. And "The Royal Nonesuch" is a clever take-off on "freak shows" that were popular in the 1800s. Some of the best moments in the play are when Messers. Dickson & Goldfinger take the stage; they are the consumate con-artists, and each actor lends a confidence & commanding voice to the proceedings; they are duplicitous, yet charming...everything a con-man should be.

But, some of the finest moments in both the source and the musical are the quieter reflective ones, especially between Huck and Jim: "The Crossing" tells of the plight of slaves escaping to the free States, "River in the Rain" (sung when the two are drifting on the raft) is a reflective and sensitive bonding between them, and "Worlds Apart" tells how Huck and Jim have the same experiences, but understand them differently because of their backgrounds and their races. It is in these quieter moments that the balance between singer and orchestra is best achieved; too often, the singers' voices were drowned out by over-amplification of the instruments.

When Huck saves Mary Jane [Bethany Telehany] from the wiles of the King & Duke, and is infatuated by her beauty, the beginnings of young love are in the air. Ms. Telehany's clear soprano is used to fine effect in both "You Oughta Be Here With Me" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go".

In its time, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a controversial book that dared to face race relations honestly and show bigotry and prejudice as the evils they are. Jim's stalwart belief in the possibilities of a new life free from the chains of prejudice, and Huck's eventual realization that true morality isn't exclusively found in religious orthodoxy, give both of them in Faulkner's version of Big River the freedom for which they have been searching.