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BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Music & Lyrics by Roger Miller, Book by William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain

Artisan Center Theater

Produced by Dee Ann Blair
Directed by Dennis Canright
Music Direction by Mary Helen Atkins
Stage Management by Lindsay Hardisty
Asst. Stage Management by Michael Williams
Costume Design by Nita Cadenhead
ASL Choreography by Chalea Blair
Scene Design by Dennis Canright & Jason Leyva
Scenic Painting by Lily Stapp-Courtney
Tank Design by Rick Blair
Lighting Design by Branson White
Props Design by Dennis Canright, Dan Nolen & Elaine Plybon


CAST
*This show is double cast. List below reflects performers and substitutions for reviewed performance.

Huck Finn - Christopher Dorf
Jim - Ecko Wilson
Tom Sawyer - David Seil
Miss Watson/Sally Phelps - Cheryl Coward King
Widow Douglas/Strange Woman - Louise Childs
Crossing Soloist - Sandy Pruitt
King - Dan Nolen, Jr.
Duke - Eric Gentry
Ben/Young Fool - Andrew Gentry
Simon/Ensemble - Michael Salvador
Dick/Ensemble - Kevin Ortega
Jo/Ensemble - Hayden Cawood
Pap/Sheriff - Seth Johnston
Judge Thatcher/Harvey Wilkes/Doctor/Lafe - David Plybon
Mark Twain/Hank/Counselor Robinson/Silas - Dan Johnston
Mary Jane Wilkes - Delaney Griffith
Joanna Wilkes - Ansley Speares
Alice - Sandy Pruitt
Alice's Daughter - Alexis Zol

BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN






Reviewed Performance 2/4/2012

Reviewed by Richard Blake, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

It's hard to surprise me with a production I've seen so many times, but Artisan Center Theater does just that by executing a difficult production that is entertaining, with a confident cast and exciting technical aspects in Big River!

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a musical based on Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman. In keeping with the setting of the novel, Big River features music in bluegrass and country styles.

The original Broadway production opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985. It ran for 1005 performances and was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It won seven, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. A critically acclaimed revival of Big River opened on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre on July 24, 2003.

This production, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre, was exceptional in that it featured both deaf and hearing actors performing together. About half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, were played by deaf or hard-of-hearing performers. All dialogue and lyrics in the production were both spoken or sung and signed, making the production equally accessible to hearing and deaf audiences.

The character of Mark Twain was expanded so that that actor also provided the voice of Huck, who was portrayed by a non-hearing actor.

In fact, Twain was performed in the revival by Daniel H. Jenkins, who created the role of Huck in the original Broadway cast.

The revival was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards and three Tony Awards, and won one of each; the 2004 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Musical and the 2004 Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre. It was remounted for a U.S. tour in 2004, and was nominated for several regional awards for excellence.

Artisan usually produces its shows in the round but for Big River they have re-arranged the entire space into a small "proscenium-esque" stage with a thrust. Well, not just a thrust, but a massive river (a.k.a. the Big River Wishing Well Tank) with complicated moving and floating platforms! There are many more exciting production elements you will have to see for yourself, but from the moment I walked in I knew this was going to be a truly unique production "Big River".

Dennis Canright's direction is very well done and very fluid. There are great opportunities on this ever changing stage and Mr. Canright uses them all excellently. Big River has many locations, and the choices he makes in direction keep you in every one of them. I will credit Mr. Canright for making the "River" just as important a character as Huckleberry Finn himself. I am very impressed with the overall use, style, scenic innuendos and transitions of the production which never takes away from the performers, but excellently enhances them!

Musical direction by Mary Helen Atkins is very well done. Ms. Atkins has a wide variety of voices, ages and styles in this production, and her choices with each performer are very well done. From solos and duets to full ensemble pieces, she obviously works very hard with the cast. There are a few moments of vocal "pushing" but I believe most of them are just nerves as this was opening night for this particular cast. Overall, musically, Ms. Atkins does a splendid job and her cast sings wonderfully.

The set design team of Dennis Canright, Jason Leyva and Lily Stapp-Courtney has done one of the most remarkable designs for a small space I believe I have ever seen! The use of a massive tank, building the set on it, moving, adding and replacing the set pieces flawlessly throughout the performance, shows a massive amount of conceptualization of this musical's needs.

The design makes for some amazing scenic presentations and offers the cast great opportunities to perform. I can't imagine that first production meeting when the concept was discussed? `Ok, so I want a huge tank that holds thousands of gallons of water in the center of the theatre and oh? the set has to break apart with the cast on it while singing and floating!' Bravo to this wonderful design team!

The costume design by Nita Cadenhead is perfect for the production. At no time is something out of place, unfitted or inappropriate. The colors, fabrics and accessories are appropriate for the period and are functional for the actors, even those that get very wet in many scenes. Overall the costume design is very well done.

This large ensemble cast is lead flawlessly by Christopher Dorf as Huck Finn. This young man took the stage, the story and a MASSIVE amount of lines on a journey that is simply spectacular! In this storyteller-type of role, Mr. Dorf has you in the palm of his hand. When narrating he captures your attention, then immediately goes right into acting it out for you. Vocally he is strong and confident but did seem to have a bit of opening night jitters in a few places, but with time in the role, I believe those will smooth out. There is a lot of talent in this young man and the DFW metroplex has a rising star on its hands!

Ecko Wilson as Jim is confident, secure and commanding in his difficult role. He makes very good choices in his character presentation and looks very comfortable. His voice is strong and controlled in various scenic elements and interactions. The role of Jim can be a challenge to present to an audience. However, Mr. Ecko is spot on in his presentation.

The role of Tom Sawyer is played by David Seil, and is pivotal in this production even though the actual stage time is a bit less than the primary characters. Mr. Seil does such an amazingly full of energy, raucous, outside the box presentation on stage you just can't take your eyes (or ears) off of him! He bounds around the stage as if he IS the mischievous Tom Sawyer, and tells his parts of the story with amazing flair. His vocal presentation is perfect, commanding and just fun to hear! I congratulate him on a job well done!

The large ensemble cast does very well vocally and works with each other on stage with great ease and confidence. Every member of the cast at some point shines on stage and carries this story with wonderful presence and passion.

A few of the stand-out performances within the ensemble are worth recognition - Eric Gentry as Duke and Dan Nolen Jr. as King play off of each other very well. The over-the-top monologues of Shakespeare by Mr. Gentry are side-splitting and just a pleasure to watch. Mr. Nolen, as his partner in crime, plays the part very well and makes the duo believable. The Young Fool, played by Andrew Gentry, keeps you laughing until you cry with his song "Arkansas"! I've never seen the role done this way, and it is magic? kudos to the young Gentry for an amazing job.

Seth Johnston's portrayal of the drunkard Pap is simply wonderful. He is all over the stage with energy and fully in character. He also does a very unique appearance later in the production that you have to watch closely for, but will definitely be surprised by.

Finally there is an amazing gem hiding in this cast and, when Sandy Pruitt enters the stage as Alice and leads the song "How Blest We Are", you are captivated! The power and control in her voice is spectacular and the emotion she exudes is palpable. She does a stunning job with this scene and draws you into her soul with every note!!

I am only disappointed in one aspect of the production, the wireless microphones. The popping, hissing and cutting in and out throughout the entire performance are very distracting. There are points when they cut out completely and it actually sounds BETTER on stage.

Only the strength of the vocalists saves the show over these highly distracting microphone issues. I know how difficult these are to work with in productions but this issue needs to be resolved for the sake of the production quality overall.

Artisan's presentation of Big River will entertain you, expose you to some amazing DFW talent and is an exciting evening at the theatre.




BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Artisan Center Theater, 418 E. Pipeline Road, Hurst, TX 76053
Runs through March 17th, 2012

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm

Ticket prices range from $7-$9 for children and $14-$18 for adults and seniors.
Purchase tickets online at www.artisanct.com or by calling the box office at 817-284-1200.