clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

`BIG RIVER' AND `CHARLIE BROWN' OFFER HOMESPUN LORE, LESSONS IN TOLERANCE

Two Broadway musicals based on classics have just opened on opposite sides of Salt Lake City - one adapted from Mark Twain's beloved masterpiece, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and the other based on a more contemporary medium (but certainly a "classic" in its own right), Charles Schulz's popular "Peanuts" gang.

While the stories are separated by nearly a century, both "Big River" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" have ample amounts of homespun philosophy and significant lessons about tolerance.Both shows are also excellent family fare.

- "BIG RIVER" is a big Tony Award winner with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and script by William Hauptman. And it's perfectly suited to one of the grandest settings in the state - the amphitheater at Sundance, surrounded by towering pines and the lofty Uinta peaks.

It's the story of Huck Finn and runaway slave Jim and their adventures floating down the Mississippi River in search of freedom. At one point, Jim reads the lines on Huck's palms, predicting that the lad is in for both considerable joy and considerable trouble.

There are elements of both in this production, too, directed and choreographed by Jayne Luke for the first of this season's Sundance Summer Theatre offerings.

The most joyful aspects of the show are Miller's spunky music, a folksy blend of country and bluegrass that comes straight from America's heartland; Luke's sprightly choreography, Scott Nielson as Huck (he understudied the role and portrayed Tom Sawyer in Pioneer Theatre Company's production two seasons back); Derek Webster, a fine actor and a newcomer to Utah stages, as Jim, and a strong supporting cast, notably Ron Jewett and Chris Brower as a couple of inept traveling con men, King and Duke; Marvin Payne as Huck's drunken Pap, and Jillette Crowther as Mary Jane Wilkes.

The outdoor setting has some definite pluses (there's real grass on Jackson's Island, and when Huck, Tom and their friends congregate at the cave to plot their wild adventures, they come running out of the woods next to the stage). Having Tom and Huck scramble around and over the high-pitched roofs of the weathered, barnwood wing spaces also adds an energetic touch.

Derek Webster's sensitive portrayal of Jim is warm and touching, but his major songs - "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain," "Worlds Apart" and "Free at Last" - never quite reach the emotional heights we hope for.

There was also no real sense of bonding between Huck and Jim, despite their being thrown together on the tiny raft, and one of the show's best gospel hymns, "How Blest We Are," didn't click until the full chorus kicked in.

The rustic locale does have its its limitations, however, throwing some challenges at scenic designer Stephen D. Dimond when it comes to the staging. The show's centerpiece - Huck and Jim's raft - is maneuvered roustabout-style by four stagehands, tugging and steering by long ropes attached to the corners. It's not as magical as the self-propelled craft in theaters having access to more high-tech equipment, but it works.

There were some irksome aspects to this production - like the unfortunately censored "Guv'ment," Pap Finn's ranting (and hilarious) tirade about big government; the truncated (and barely audible) version of "The Crossing," which, done right, is a moving gospel lament sung by slaves being taken back into captivity, and the much-too-loud combo. There are only six musicians, but many times they nearly obliterate the lyrics.

Overall, though, "Big River" maintains the integrity of storyteller Twain's original tale. It has some of the best music ever written for a Broadway show (and the fact that the original production was honored with seven Tonys bears this out), and it's a great season opener for Sundance Summer Theatre's 1991 lineup.

Just bring along plenty of blankets (the benches are hard!) and jackets or sweaters for the chilly, high-mountain air. For the elderly or just those who aren't into trudging up the hill, free rides aboard a hayrack with benches, pulled by a tractor, ease the trip from the box office to the amphitheater.

- YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN is a tune-filled day in the life of six of the famous "Peanuts" regulars - good old wishy-washy Charlie Brown, fuss-budget Lucy Van Pelt, blanket-toting Linus, Beethoven-playing Schroeder, gadabout Peppermint Patty and, probably the world's most famous beagle, Snoopy.

Although it was originally conceived and presented as a proscenium theater-piece off-Broadway, director Ralph G. Rodgers Jr. has adapted it for the more intimate Pages Lane theater-in-the-round with lots of clever touches that not only draw the patrons right into the action but move the performers into the audience, as well.

Rodgers, who appears nightly in the role of put-upon Charlie Brown, has also enhanced the staging of the piece by adding a peripheral chorus of other "Peanuts" characters - nearly a dozen other performers scattered around all four sides of the theater.

Not only do these dozen or so additional characters add considerably to the ensemble numbers, they also provide pre-show entertainment for youngsters in the crowd, and act as "gofers" during intermission, getting treats from the snack counter for patrons.

But the six main characters form the backbone of this delightful musical, and the cast we saw (on Saturday night) was excellent - especially Lynda Tenney as Lucy, Glen Clayburn as Snoopy and David Len Allen as Schroeder.

Tenny has the look and demeanor of Lucy down pat; Allen personifies Schroeder, who'd rather bang out Beethoven on his tiny piano than listen to Lucy's crabby rantings and ravings, and Clayburn is terrific as Snoopy, who battles the fierce Red Baron from atop his soaring Sopwith Camel and bounces through an ode to the joys of "Suppertime."

The most poignant moments belong to Charlie, a role perfectly suited to the talents of Ralph Rodgers. Whether he's alone on a schoolyard bench, contemplating the Little Redheaded Girl across the way (while the peanut butter in his sandwich sticks to the roof of his mouth), or managing the neighborhood baseball team, or gamely trying to fly his kite again, or soliciting introspective advice from Lucy (complete with her famous "the doctor is IN" sign), Charlie always has a special knack for mirroring a child's-eye view of adult foibles.

The fun starts even before Act 1 gets under way, when the extended Peanuts Gang prods people out of the audience to honor them for birthdays and anniversaries.

One patron stood atop a bright blue platform while they sang (to the tune of "On Top of Old Smokey."

On top of old Frosty,

All covered with fudge,

Stand more birthday candles

Than a forklift could budge . . .

. . . Your friends will all love you

And care for you still,

So gee, ain't you lucky,

You're over the hill.

The costuming and scenery give the production a comic strip aura, and Joan Rodgers and Athena Day-ley on piano and percussion provide just the right level of accompaniment for the songs.

I don't know how you feel, but for this drama critic, "Happiness Is . . ." having Pages Lane's year-round theater in Davis County, practically in my own backyard.