Big River (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author.” – Mark Twain

That quote is inside the program for Standing Room Only’s foot-tapping production of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s funny is the story does have a moral, plot, and a motive, but I guess Mr. Twain would prefer his audience just enjoy what happens rather than try to make sense of it; and enjoyable it is, especially in this Tony award-winning musical adaptation with songs by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Loar (Widow Douglas), Caleb Baker (Huck Finn), Brandon Buchanan (Jim), and Kris Wilson (Miss Watson)

The time is 1844, and the place is the Deep South. It is before the Civil War, and slavery is still legal. Huck Finn fills us in on how he and Tom Sawyer now have money in the bank, and how he is just aching to get out on his own while living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Huck’s alcoholic and abusive father smells money and takes back custody of Huck. It isn’t long before Huck takes matters into his own hands, starting off on a series of adventures with Jim, a runaway slave, and encountering a team of con men (a “King” and a “Duke”) that get them into nothing but trouble. Through it all, Huck grows as a person and works to find a way back home while keeping Jim from being enslaved again.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brandon Buchanan (Jim) and Caleb Baker (Huck Finn)

Caleb Baker is a curious choice as Huck Finn; he appears to be easily twice the age of the character he is playing, and he underplays his part to a large extent. In some ways, this works just fine because there are many supporting actors who more than make their mark in the berth his performance leaves open. This relaxed approach to Huck also makes Mr. Baker’s strong renditions of “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (both duets with the sublime Brandon Buchanan) feel all the more significant when his voice and manner rise to the occasion of the moment.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Caleb Baker (Huck Finn) and Thor Collard (Pap Finn)

Standouts in the supporting cast are the aforementioned Brandon Buchanan as Jim, the slave, bringing dignity and sweetness to a tricky part; Thor Collard playing a variety of slimy characters from Pap Finn to Silas with delicious aggression; Ryan Kopycinski as Ben Rogers and a part of the ensemble, comfortably as backwoods-ish as possible; Nyla Nyamweya as the daughter of a slave named Alice, performing an electrifying solo of “How Blest We Are”; and John Feather as the con man King and Judge Thatcher.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Wilma Hatton (Alice), Nyla Nyamweya (Alice’s daughter), and Akia Williams

Dee Shepherd directs this show efficiently, maintaining a steady sprint that could easily be held back by large sets and too many props. Ms. Shepherd allows her actors to spread out and tell the story largely on their own with some well-placed sound effects, some interesting lighting choices (a raft that figures largely in the play has its perimeter defined by the lighting), and a truly excellent small band lead by music director Chipper Snow. The bluegrass-themed score by Roger Miller is adeptly performed with Jordan Shear on the violin, Ted Reich on the harmonica, Robert W. Loar on percussion and bass, and Josh Dillingham on guitar; each of these talented men earn a shout out. The Van Fleet Theatre can be tricky sound wise, but this is one production where the singing can be heard perfectly (save for two performers who shall go unnamed) even with the band playing off to the right.

Photo: Jerri Shafer


Big River is more enjoyable in this small production by Standing Room Only than I remember from seeing the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s still an episodic show with perhaps one vignette too many, but this Big River is also surprisingly rousing in its crowd scenes, and I found myself humming songs that had not caught my attention from seeing the show previously. Even though Mr. Twain said there was no moral in this story, I beg to differ; seeing Huck Finn’s growth from seeing Jim as just a slave to a fully rounded person with the ability to feel and care “just like a white person” is still unfortunately relevant. We’ve come a long way socially, but these stories that illustrate the way it was less than two hundred years ago in this country are still very important to tell, especially as long as a malaise of inequality still hangs over this great country of ours. Go see Standing Room Only’s Big River for the music and the fun, but leave with the message.

*** 1/4 out of ****

Big River continues through to May 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/big-river1.html

Photo: Jerri Shafer
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1776 (Pickerington Community Theatre – Pickerington, OH)

I have no problem admitting that 1776 is one of my favorite musicals. I’ve seen the movie countless times and know the score inside out. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a staged production though, and I was so pleased to see that Pickerington Community Theatre was handling it after their fine production of Oliver! a few months back.

1776 won the 1969 Tony Award for Best Musical, beating out the diametrically different Hair that was also a popular hit at the time. With a traditional book and score, 1776 was a throwback to a golden era on Broadway that pretty much ended with it. A film of 1776 was released in 1972 with much of the original stage cast; though initially a flop, it found its audience on video. There was also a Broadway revival that ran for nearly a year in 1998.

Set in the summer of 1776, the musical tells the story of how Massachusetts congressman John Adams worked to free America from British rule by convincing the Continental Congress that independence was the only option. It took a lot of convincing to get these representatives of the thirteen original colonies to agree on anything, and the musical details the involvement of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in creating the Declaration of Independence as well as the opposition from the conservative land and slave owners. The music and lyrics were by Sherman Edwards, a former history teacher and pop music composer, with a book by Peter Stone, who was probably best known for writing the 1963 film Charade.

This production is being performed at the Heritage Theater located at 100 North East Street between Heritage Elementary School and the Pickerington school district office. So much of the show takes place in the chamber of the Continental Congress with nearly two dozen cast members portraying representatives from the thirteen colonies, and so it makes sense to have it as a unit set always in the background when not being utilized. The set is ingeniously designed by Andrew Weibel at a 45 degree angle with several levels for the tables and chairs for the congressmen. Somehow director Adam Schroeder keeps everyone moving in such a way that it never looks overcrowded and is interesting to look at, far more appealing than if the stage was larger with everyone spaced about on the same level. The costumes (rented from Costume Holiday House) also surprised me as being quite ornate and beautifully rendered, especially Benjamin Franklin’s silver coat.

Musical director Susan Laney and her orchestra deserve special commendation for their fine work. In fact, when the overture started I was a little disappointed; I thought it was a recording! The orchestra wasn’t visible because they were behind and to the left of the set, and only when I reviewed my program later did I see a list of the talented musicians responsible. The music was lively and performed at the just the right peppy tempo, so good overall that I was sure it was too proficient to be from volunteers in a community theatre production. Yes, I thought that, and now I’m eating crow.

Chris Gallaugher is John Adams, unquestionably the star of the show; that is when the scene isn’t being stolen by mischievous Thor Collard as Benjamin Franklin. Chris is stern and big voiced, only faltering here and there being slightly off key. Thor is dangerous to share the stage with, every bit as good as the definitive Howard da Silva in the film version, and sometimes even better. He has a knack for highlighting several moments of subtle humor I had not noticed before and has the timing down to grab the laughs from the audience. Other standouts in this ensemble are Tim Smith as villainous John Dickinson from Pennsylvania, Thomas Durkin as crotchety Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island, and Dave Zwiebel as sleazy Edward Rutledge from South Carolina. 

There are only two women in the entire show, and their stage time is precious but brief; Wendy Cohen is Abigail Adams and Marrett Laney is Martha Jefferson. Both ladies have delectable voices; Wendy’s high and firm in “Till Then” and “Yours, Yours, Yours”; Marrett’s sweet and winsome in “He Plays the Violin” (one of my two favorite songs in the show). Marrett is knowingly suggestive in just the right way that Blythe Danner just wasn’t playing the same role in the film.

Few productions even of the best plays are flawless, and the few criticisms I can offer aren’t major. The Continental Congress set was nearly always fully illuminated even when scenes took place elsewhere, and it took two hours just to get to the intermission. I remember that on the commentary track for the Blu-ray of the film that the actors mentioned how on the stage they were directed to say their lines faster and faster to keep the show from running into overtime. A bit more speed, especially during the long period between “The Lees of Old Virginia” and “But Mr. Adams,” would’ve helped, as would tightening up some of the rather long scene changes. I also felt that the calendar, important for signaling the countdown to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, should’ve been placed more prominently on the set.

Without any kids in the cast or special effects, I’m sure 1776 is a tough sell to those unfamiliar with its Broadway success and enduring popularity with musical theatre fans. From the outside it does seem like it would be stale and boring, a history lesson with corny music. The truth is that it’s anything but. It can’t be an easy show to stage and market, but this production succeeds on the strengths of its strong cast, beautifully rendered score, and impressive set and costumes. Did I mention that it’s also funny?

*** / out of ****

1776 continues through to July 19th in Pickerington, OH, and more information can be found at http://pickeringtoncommunitytheatre.org/