Mark Twain’s timeless tale of Huckleberry Finn and his best friend Tom Sawyer and the story of how Huck helped his friend Jim, a slave, escape from captivity is one that we all had to read back in my schooldays. The story teaches us about loyalty and friendship and of course about humanity. In 1985, this classic tale was developed into a full blown musical with a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by the late Roger Miller ( an award winning writer, best known for his “King of The Road” and “Dang Me”) that was the winner of eight Tony Awards. While we have been treated to many productions of this piece over the years, in most cases, those productions have been to big and brassy. The current revival being done by Boho Theatre at the New Theater Wit on Belmont is a pared down version of the show with the orchestra being replaced by Guitars,banjo,harmonica,squeezebox,fiddle, bass, washboard, tambourine and some percussion, in my opinion the way it was meant to be played. Directed by P. Marston Sullivan with a small but very talented cast, this is a solid version of a truly down home musical with a message-
The show is full of adventure for young Huck ( a powerful performance by Andrew Mueller) and the Slave Jim ( deftly handled by Brian-Alwyn Newland) as they travel down the mighty Mississippi searching for Jim’s freedom. Along the way, they encounter two con-men who lead them where they do not want to go, but Huck, in order to protect his friend goes along with these men as he fears that they will sell Jim as a slave and he will never get North so he can save money and come back and buy his family out of slavery. The ending is as we all know one where they all live happily ever after ( except for the con-men played witha delicious fervor by John B. Leen and Sean Thomas, who both play other roles as well). Tom Sawyer is handled by Courteny Crouse, who also plays a myriad of other roles and I for one was quite impressed with his down home characters and his relaxed natural ability to portray the, Prior to this show, I have found him a bit “stiff” on stage- he has matured nicely).
As most of you know I believe that the ensemble is as important to a musical as the main characters and this show is no exception. Huck and Jim are the only characters that stand alone. All the others are played by members of the ensemble, even the musicians play roles and by the way, even the actors play musical instruments. Christa Buck, Rashada Dawan, Nicholas Davio ( also the musical director), Anna Hammonds, Hilary Holbrook ( a wonderful fiddler),Cam McIntyre, Mike Tepeli ( handles the washboard with great expertise), and James Williams- great job! The set by Judy Radovsky and Anders Jacobson is very practical in its use of the wide stage area at The Wit. This is a small and intimate theater and I guess Sullivan opted for the wide set in order to bring the audience closer to the action. While it had many positives, there were a few times where sight lines were tarnished by the people next to me leaning forward to see, thus blocking my view making me do likewise and then it became like a wave at a sporting event. That and some of the lighting effects were probably the only negatives I found in this sterling production that proves it is not the number of actors you put on the stage, but the quality of their performances that make a production seem larger than it really is. The costumes by Sarah Putnam and the props by Steve Genovese are the icing on the cake- a really good cake.
“Big River” will continue through October 10th at Theater Wit located at 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago ( a new facility that is comfortable and intimate) with performances on Thursday,Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $25 and it is “open seating”, but there are really no bad seats. To order your tickets call the box office at 773-975-8150 or visit www.bohotheatre.com