Thursday, April 17, 2014

theatre review BIG RIVER, Mesa Encore Theatre, April 10

Devon Nickel and Marcus Terrell Smith
To read my complete review at Talkin' Broadway (highlights below) of Big River, just click on this link.

"Based on Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the musical Big River features Twain's iconic characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in their rowdy and heartfelt adventures. With a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by country music singer and songwriter Roger Miller, the musical swept the 1985 Tony Awards winning seven Tonys, including Best Musical. The Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting the show in a lovely, sweeping and intimate production that has excellent leads and adept direction.

Set in the 1840s, Big River follows the adventure-loving Huckleberry Finn as he is forced to fake his own death to escape from his drunken and violent father. Huck joins up with the runaway slave Jim, who is searching for his freedom and hopes to buy back his wife and children up North. They head down the Mississippi river on a make-shift raft, encountering colorful characters along the way. The river is the source of escape and freedom for both Huck and Jim, and the musical features many lovable characters and the emotionally uplifting and humorous situations from Twain's novel.

The cast includes Devon Nickel as Huck, and he is just about perfect. He evokes Huck's adventurous side with an effortlessly established sense of awe, bewilderment and wonder that also captures the wanderlust mood of the period. His gawky physique and sly sense of humor combine to add a layer of boyish charm and his singing is sweet with a nice country twang. Marcus Terrell Smith plays Jim with perfect conviction. He flawlessly evokes the highs and lows of this character, from the high of believing there is the possibility that he will be reunited with his wife and children, to the low of finding himself once again in chains. Smith's singing voice is clear and can be both quiet and lush or forceful and loud. It is a stirring performance. The connection these two actors have is very realistic, and the several duets they share, which are all highlights, are full of exuberance and a pure depth of feeling.

Big River is a musical with lessons about learning from one another. Huck learns much from Jim about forgiveness, acceptance and the ability to overcome your obstacles. The Mesa Encore Theatre gets that message across in a rollicking and charming production with polished performances (including near perfect ones from Nickel and Smith and fun and multi-dimensional actors in the supporting parts) and flowing, clear direction.

Big River runs at Mesa Encore Theatre through April 19, 2014, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center at 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Tickets can be ordered by calling (480) 644-6500 or at

Photo: Sarah Rodgers/Mesa Encore Theatre

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