By Pat Robbennolt
Big River opened its floodgates on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse. Director Britt Hancock, Production Supervisor Bryce McDonald, Choreographer Leila Nelson and Music Director Ron Murphy brought an astonishing production to the opening night audience.
Austin Price turned in a stunning performance as Huckleberry Finn. I have watched Price mature from a talented youngster to a fine actor, dancer and vocalist. His interplay with Horace Smith, as escaped slave and good friend, Jim, was praiseworthy.
For those of us who celebrated Smith in his one-man show as Paul Robeson and have been delighted to see him as one of the Five Guys Named Moe, hearing Smith’s melodious baritone is thrilling.
Opening curtain reminded us this is a tale by the incomparable Mark Twain, who said persons attempting to find a motive in the play would be prosecuted, those searching for a moral would be banished and those thinking they have found a plot would be shot.
Weslie Webster and Lauren Marshall play the widow Douglas and Miss Watson, dedicated to raising Huck with high morals and appropriate motives. Their efforts fall on deaf ears as he joins his enthusiastic companions. Greg Pendzick, John Dobbratz, Colin Cahill, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman and Emily Woods declare their unending allegiance to one another. Energetic and athletic in their dance sequences, their voices blend as they sing “Do You Want to Go to Heaven” and “The Boys.”
Cast members have the challenge of playing a variety of roles: Woods, playing Jo and a Tart later in the show, shines beyond her familiar role as Denise in Smoke on the Mountain. Greg Pendzick plays Ben Rogers, Man on a Skiff, Hank, Harvey Wilkes, and the doctor in the course of the show. John Dobbratz, who received his bachelor's degree in musical theater degree in 2012, is seen as Judge Thatcher, Simon, and Man on a Skiff, Andy and Counselor Robinson. Another cast member with a recent degree in theater is Colin Cahill who plays Dick and A Young Fool.
Any hesitation your reviewer had regarding the ability of Price to properly execute this demanding role dissolved as Price sang, “Waiting for the Light to Shine” and “I, Huckleberry.” Price and Smith are deeply moving as they blend their voices on “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain,” reprised in the second act with the entire company.
The ever-versatile Daniel Black first appears as the drunken Pap Finn, demanding both loyalty and money from his son. He sings of the “Guv’ment.” Black is ever eager to exploit each of his roles to the fullest. Playing Pap as well as Lafe, Sheriff Bell, and Silas Phelps gives him plenty of opportunity!
Black shows his instrumental skill on harmonica, mandolin, guitar and jaw harp. He joins the other musical River Rats: Tommy Hancock on guitar, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman on the fiddle, and Colin Cahill on the banjo and harmonica. Throughout the show, Tommy Hancock portrays a surprisingly silent Mark Twain.
Porter Anderson, Quinn Cason, Donald Frison, Michael Ruff, and Chaz Sanders are familiar faces whose abilities we have often celebrated. They were seen most recently in Five Guys Named Moe. In Big River, they are slaves on the river near Cairo, Illinois singing “The Crossing.” Dee Hill, the slave named Alice, joins them. With the company she later sings “How Blest We Are.” Her soaring voice is indeed an inspiration.
It is always a treat to have Patty Payne on stage. In this show she brings her unique quality of presence to the roles of both the woman in the shanty and the schoolteacher.
It is not often that we see the director on stage. Britt Hancock and Jason Ross are hilarious as The King and the Duke. Their vaudeville style is riotously funny. It takes seasoned actors like the two to them to pull off these ridiculous but exacting roles.
The skills of choreographer Leila Nelson are especially revealed in the second act with a group of “tarts”: Carly Amburn, Lindy Pendzick, Emily Woods, Anna Baker, Lauren Marshall and Weslie Webster dance their way into our hearts. Individually they are called upon to play The Wilkes sisters: Mary Jane, Susan, and Joanna as well as Sally Phelps, Miss Watson, and Jo Harper. The complexities of the multiple casting are many. Fortunately, under the direction of Britt Hancock they all work smoothly.
Never missing a beat throughout the eighteen musical numbers are orchestra members Joe Brindisi, Robert Thatch, Chet Hayes, Chris Rayis, Wayne Robbins and Tony Greco. The direction of Ron Murphy is essential and masterful.
You may have seen the 2005 production of Big River. It was well done. This is a spectacular presentation of a delightful show. Call and get your tickets. Every performance should be a sell-out.