OREM — At the conclusion of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck explains to the audience, “It was like the fortune predicted long ago: considerable trouble and considerable joy.” And there’s considerable joy—both displayed on stage and experienced by the fortunate audience—in the Sundance Summer Theater’s must-see co-production with Utah Valley University.Under the direction of Elizabeth Hansen, it’s the ebullient performances of the talented 21-member cast that makes the musical an endearing and joyous show. There’s nary a detail overlooked to bring to life Mark Twain’s unforgettable American story. To her credit, Hansen leapfrogs over the play’s considerable troubles with its score and book.
While Big River was awarded seven Tonys in 1985, it was a decidedly lean year. (The other Best Musical nominees were Grind, Quilters, and Leader of the Pack.) Nashville songwriter Roger Miller, remembered for his novelty songs “King of the Road” and “Dang Me,” wrote the serviceable score that is at times jubilant and wistful. Miller weaves Cajun, gospel, country, and bluegrass into his only foray into musical theater. The show’s meandering book is credited to short story writer William Hauptman. Perhaps most revealing is that Des McAnuff shepherded Big River from the La Jolla Playhouse to earn the legendary director’s first Tony in his premiere Broadway production.
The actors in this rollicking production are well-cast and well-rehearsed, and the lively choreography by C. Michael Perry is polished and energetically performed. In his second turn in the raffish role of Huck, an engaging Nathan Waite brings a winsome grin and a hangdog look to the part. There’s rarely a moment when Waite is not on stage, and he also expertly anchors the play as narrator when he breaks the fourth wall to present each new storyline and introduce us to the show’s many characters. His appealing singing voice is evident in his “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” solo and his defiant anthem “I, Huckleberry, Me.”
While Waite is the heart of this show, Harry Bonner is a poignant presence as the runaway slave Jim, who helps Huck learn the true meaning of friendship. Bonner and Waite bring out the best in each other, creating warm harmonies with the wistful “River in the Rain” and the plaintive “Worlds Apart.” Bonner’s acting is fine to portray an uneducated scavenge dreaming to earn money to buy back his family, but he is without the powerhouse pipes needed to stop the show with “Free at Last.” The episodic tale places many demands on its ensemble, all of whom play a variety of roles, and there are memorable performances from their short-lived characters.
Nick Whitaker scores as a playful Tom Sawyer when he leads his mischievous gang in “The Boys” and offers a delightful riff with “Hand for the Hog” inviting us to consider a swine man’s best friend. Another standout performance is found in Tanner Harmon’s Bojangles-influenced portrayal of Young Fool in “Arkansas, Arkansas.” In contrast, his hayseed comic turn is immediately followed by the gospel singing of “How Blest We Are” during the funeral scene that is a goosebump-inducing highlight. L.D. Weller delivers the laugh-out-loud — and especially relatable today — tirade “Guv’ment” in his challenging role as Huck’s drunken Pa that requires him to swing between comic and sinister. (And thanks for not excising his — shall we say — colorful colloquialisms.)
Norma Butikofer turns in a fine performance as Mary Jane Wilkes who takes a shine to Huck with “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go,” and the entire ensemble is showcased in the rousing opener that asks Huck “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” and the hilarious “The Royal Nonesuch” sideshow that swindles the townsfolk.
The evocative scenic design by Stephen Purdy and Don Parker wisely includes the outdoor theater’s towering pine backdrop to enhance the play’s varied locations, from the raft on the mighty Mississippi that spills out into the first row to the pre-Civil War parlor of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. The period-accurate and creative costuming that uniquely defines each of the show’s many characters is by Anna-Marie Johnson.
This production is a worthy follow-up to Sundance’s exceptional production of The Fantasticks last summer. And with Big River joining UVU’s oeuvre that includes The Robber Bridegroom and the recent production of Urinetown, the newly christened university is beginning to earn a reputation for turning lesser-known musicals into crowd-pleasing gems.
One leaves Sundance hoping more productions once again could be done there than the single musical each Summer and enjoying the theater’s setting nestled within the stunning Mount Timpanogos. But do bring two thick pillows: one for the back and one for the butt. The Eccles Outdoor Stage log-plank bench seats are unforgiving and quickly induce aches.