Arthur Miller’s landmark play has gripped audiences for nearly 65 years, but couldn’t be more timely in today’s political environment. The McCarthy-era drama, set in Puritan Salem, paints a portrait of a paranoid, litigious society — power-hungry and gripped by misguided moralism.
The story focuses upon a young farmer, his wife, and a young servant-girl who maliciously causes the wife’s arrest for witchcraft. The farmer brings the girl to court to admit the lie—and it is here that the monstrous course of bigotry and deceit is terrifyingly depicted. The farmer, instead of saving his wife, finds himself also accused of witchcraft and ultimately condemned with a host of others.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In lieu of a full review, I offer up this promotional video I produced for the production. Though the full title is Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Standing Room Only [SRO] is promoting it just as Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd continues through to April 10th 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
I’ve been asked by a few people to compile my picks for the best central Ohio theatre in and around Columbus in 2015, and so that’s just what I’ve done. I didn’t start writing about and trying to see as much local theatre as possible until June, so there are some reportedly very good productions that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. This list is based on what I saw for the second half of 2015 with one exception – Short North Stage’s Psycho Beach Party from January 2015. I didn’t write a review for it, but the fun I had at that production is still vivid in my mind year later.
For a thorough rundown of my thoughts on each show, I have linked my reviews to open by clicking on the title of each play.
It’s a tricky thing to take as established a classic as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, deconstruct it, and rebuild it into something both familiar and new; this is what Jeffrey Hatcher has done with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his 2008 adaptation that shifts the focus onto Mr. Edward Hyde as one who is perhaps not entirely evil and Dr. Henry Jekyll who isn’t perhaps all good either. The idea of Jekyll and Hyde with split personalities is a firm part of popular culture, spoofed in Bugs Bunny cartoons and sitcoms to even being the basis for a Broadway musical; Hatcher knows there is no surprise left there, but there certainly is in this version by way of reframing the plot to see it from a different angle. It is this creative reworking of the classic that opens Standing Room Only’s 31st season in an eerily effective production, arriving just in time for Halloween.
Everyone in this small cast of six deserves recognition. Joe Dallacqua plays Dr. Henry Jekyll with suave confidence, cutting a frame not unlike a young Richard Gere; Erica Beimesche plays Elizabeth with fresh-faced naïveté, the typical youth attracted to the bad boy in the form of Mr. Hyde; James Harper is intense and frightening as one of many faces of Edward Hyde, but he’s also effective as the nefarious Dr. Carew; Jordan Estose enjoys playing the fop as Lanyon, but he also gets in on the action as a violent Hyde as well; Catherine Cryan plays the dutiful servant Poole and her other roles with efficiency as well as an unlikely (but fierce) face of Hyde, one scene involving a transformation being particularly physical and impressive; last but not least is Ken Erney as Utterson and a few other roles, serving to help propel the story forward with dignity and stately grace.
Director Patrick McGregor II stages the action all around the audience; this is an environmental production, so the audience is seated on small bleachers all around the main performance space, one of the reasons for the limited seating. When artistic director Dee Shepherd warned everyone to stay in their seats and within a designated area during her introductory speech before the performance, she wasn’t kidding; the actors, props, and set pieces are sometimes just inches away from audience members. Some may find that intrusive, but those people are probably in the minority and wouldn’t have come to such a production anyway. My friend and I were thrilled to feel like we were right there in the middle of the action, and the people across and to the sides of us seemed to agree, their gasps loudly audible as actors would suddenly appear behind them or a violent murder would be enacted within arm’s length. Hyde’s slithery voice can often be heard from several directions at once, not by the use of some fancy sound engineering but because the character is played by many people; there are times when they speak the same lines, a terribly creepy effect when a voice suddenly pops out from behind you from an actor you didn’t know was there.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the rare reimagining of a classic that complements the original rather than seeking to replace or upstage it. The basic concept of separating good from evil and the struggle in the body of one man is still there, but the characterizations and situations all around are modified to tell a different version of this story. Standing Room Only’s production is the kind of show that can help engage an audience with preconceived notions about the static nature of some theatre while also offering something fresh to even the most jaded theatregoer. The decision to have such limited seating may not be the most sound financial decision but it pays off in spades for the privileged few audience members that will catch this production before it’s gone.