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Review: Candlelight Takes on Big Story with Big River

Quick! List your top five favorite Broadway musicals about slavery. If Big River isn’t on there, well, you have a very frightening and obscure list in front of you.  Big River is the musicalization of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and follows Huck’s journey as he fakes his own death, and travels on a raft with a Jim, a runaway slave. Like the book, it’s a piece of history that every member of the family can connect to, but the historical accuracy of the language and the racial themes are a bit shocking to most modern ears.

Big Voices Take on Charming, Compelling Music

HE SAID: This show has a ton of whimsy, which fills the music and the choreography, making for an easily pleasant time. Yet, at it’s core is one of the most recognizable American stories in our history, so there is a lot of soul and sincerity to the deeper moments in the show – whether Mark Twain meant for any to be there or not. The number “The Boys” with Huck, played by Mark Lively, and his friends was incredibly peppy and the same goes for “When The Sun Goes Down In The South” at the end of Act 1, featuring Brian Button and Scott Severtson as the Duke and the King.

SHE SAID: I am a sucker for good male ensemble numbers, and so I also loved “The Boys,” and thought the choreography was adorable.  But most of all, I really appreciated all of the vocal performances. The music from Big River is all high-quality, and all of the performers handled it skillfully. I was especially impressed with Keith Hatten as Jim, and consistently enjoyed his duets with Lively as Huck. Lively himself at times got a little wrapped up in the dialect, and although he used it with remarkable consistency throughout the night, there were a few moments where it seemed that the dialect had more of an effect on the delivery of his lines than the acting moment.

Candlelight Challenged By Racial Themes

HE SAID: Before seeing this production, the only thing I really knew about the show was what I heard about the 2003 Deaf West production,which was a national story because the incorporation of deaf actors brought   incredible diversity to a story some would say is all about accepting diversity. Unfortunately, a lack of diversity is one downfall of  Candlelight’s production. The only time that it was really noticeably detrimental was during “The Crossing,” which is to be performed by a black ensemble portraying slaves. While they had Dominique N. Simmons on stage doing the lead vocals splendidly (and she has some pipes!) they had the rest of the white cast in the background with big hats and bonnets obscuring their faces and necks and dark gloves covering their hands. We were sitting in the back to the side and we still noticed them. Why the chorus couldn’t have been singing off stage is unclear, especially since they were for “Free At Last” later in the show. I still would have noticed the lack of diversity, but I might not have ever found it as deeply unfortunate as I did with the way it was staged.

SHE SAID: It’s always challenging to cast shows that explicitly require a cast that is noticeably more diverse than the performing arts community in Colorado. And it’s always had to decide whether companies shouldn’t select shows for their season that have specific requirements that they might not be able to fill, or whether they should go ahead and tell these important and worthy stories and risk casting difficulties. Had the ensemble members been entirely in silhouette, I wouldn’t have minded the lack of a black ensemble in the show, but the blatant misrepresentation of their race was definitely a little bit unsettling.

Design Creates Beautiful World

HE SAID: Unsettling is a good word for it, especially when you consider that there are enough talented actors around town to cast a black ensemble. The silhouettes would have worked as well, and they definitely had the lighting set up to do it. Otherwise, the lighting and set design (by Peter F. Muller) through the show was really nice. Simple, to match a simple time, but very effective and efficient and interesting to watch. One of the first things you see is a door pop open to reveal  kitchen set that is pushed out of a hidden space. It was a pleasant surprise and let me know of the nice technical elements that were to come.

SHE SAID: The set was definitely simple but beautiful, and really captured my attention throughout the show. I especially loved the raft that Huck and Jim take town the river, it was mounted on wheels so well that they were able to steer it fairly precisely and it seemed to move as though it was on water. I kept looking forward to them jumping on it again. The costumes by Judy Ernst were consistently appropriate and pleasing. I also really loved the choreography by director Brian Burron — I thought it was appropriate, entertaining, and very well tailored to the abilities of the performers, and so it was performed with a great amount of confidence.

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Candlelight Nods to Literary Great in Musical Form

THEY SAID: Candlelight has done the story of Huck Finn justice in this production of Big River. The choral sound, as well as the individual vocal performances, were absolutely spot-on, and made us look forward to each musical number. The design elements were gorgeous as they supported the storytelling. But many people are uncomfortable with some of the language and themes in Huck Finn that deal with the race relations of the time, and Big River does nothing to soften that aspect of the story. Candlelight might have exacerbated the problem with their choice to misrepresent their ensemble, but ultimately the production is worth seeing. Maybe it’ll be the start of a conversation about race that is still worth having, many years after Mark Twain’s story was written.

For a full history and plot synopsis of Big River, see the wikipedia article. Big River plays through August 21 at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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