by Shirley Lorraine
Big River a Memorable Journey
The prolific humorous storyteller Mark Twain’s characters Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and others come to life on the Rubicon theater stage. Adapted from Twain’s writings, Big River explores Huck and his slave friend Jim’s journey on the Mississippi searching for freedom. The book by William Hauptman and down-home music by Roger Miller has earned the show numerous awards as well as audience’s hearts.
From the opening sounds of crickets and bluegrass/country the familiar characters emerge, spinning the yarns on which most of us grew up.
This tale centers on Huck Finn, a restless teen who yearns for life beyond his drunken Pap and best friend Tom Sawyer and rag-tag gang of wanna-be tough guys. Huck decides to join the family’s slave Jim in a river adventure by faking his own death. The two encounter many trials on their journey, including befriending two aging hucksters, the Duke and the King.
Along the way Huck learns many valuable life lessons including the value of honesty and doing the right thing, no matter what the consequences.
The Rubicon’s production arose from director/choreographer Kirby Ward and his wife Beverly’s desire to bring the musical to Ventura. In keeping with the ongoing relevance of the story, language has been preserved from the original that may be uncomfortable for some, but which is vital to the telling of the story. Kirby keeps the action moving along with creative staging and choreography. I could almost feel the pages of the story being turned as it unraveled before me. The music is engaging throughout, fitting perfectly into each chapter of the tale.
Many in the large cast play several roles, adding to the storytelling aspect that is so critical to the production. The addition of background projection adds to the scenes to bring the picture to life. Even the on-stage musical accompaniment gets into the act, with several musicians taking active roles in the story itself.
The cast is superb throughout. Leading the action is Josey Montana McCoy as the irascible Huck and David Aron Damane as Jim, larger than life in both presence and voice. Together the two-produce vocal magic.
Broadway actress Teri Bibb plays Miss Watson and other characters, with Rubicon company everyman Joseph Fuqua handling the character of Pap and more. His rendition of Miller’s song Guv’ment is a highlight.
Standout performances are given by Larry Cedar and Richard Hebert as the hucksters who present themselves as royalty with outstanding comedic timing. Nick McKenna, one of Tom’s gang and more, shines as Young Fool singing Arkansas with pluck.
Additional fine performances are given by Cassidy Stirtz as Mary Jane/Fiddler, Brandon Ruiter as Tom Sawyer, Renn Woods as Alice, who delivers some fine gospel, and Clarinda Ross as the Widow Douglas. There is not a weak player in the cast or orchestra.
Big River is an experience in high quality theater, intimate storytelling and ongoing themes that are as relevant today as ever. Ventura is indeed fortunate to have the Rubicon in our midst.
Big River runs through November 10. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m. (talkbacks follow the Wednesday evening performances) Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Rubicon Theater, 1006 E. Main St, Ventura. or (805) 667-2900 for tickets. Prices vary. Make reservations soon as many shows sell out.