Editors note: This is the first in a new Deseret News series highlighting Utah's community theater programs.
OREM — Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been controversial since its initial U.S. publication in 1885. According to PBS, it was initially banned from some libraries, but in the last few decades, concerns have been directed toward the book’s treatment of race and racism, particularly its use of the n-word. As recently as 2016 the book was banned from a public school in Virginia.
Despite this, the book's musical adaptation, “Big River,” won the Tony Award for Best Musical in its first year, 1985. For those who want to be familiar with Twain’s work but aren’t sure how they feel about reading the controversial novel, this charming, watered-down version is sure to please. Racist overtones are obvious but addressed in a way that merely indicates the follies of the story's time period.
Audiences who come early to find good seats on the Scera Park's grass will be treated to plucky, folksy music that sets the mood and enhances a beautifully painted set with small details like tiny lights blinking on and off in the painted trees to represent fireflies. But it’s the big details that really stole the show.
As indicated by the title, most of the action of “Big River” takes place on a river. And it is pure musical magic.
The crew of “Big River” created an actual river onstage. Wooden platforms are pulled apart to reveal a pool of water that Jim and Huck “float” down. At one point, it even rains — really rains — on stage. This technical feat is sure to wow and enchant.
Of course, it's all only a backdrop for the talents of the cast. Jonathan Gustavson, who plays Jim, has a warm, wonderful voice and a sincerity that made him the best and most likable character. Duets between Gustavson and Zack Elzey, who plays Huck Finn, were incredible because their voices complemented each other perfectly. Thankfully, they have roughly four numbers together.
Elzey’s curly hair and bright voice made for a convincing and pleasant Huck, although there were a few low notes that demonstrated his limits. The biggest thing working against Elzey was his height. Elzey is roughly the same height as Gustavson, at least from afar, which worked OK. But Elzey easily towered over the majority of the cast. During a confrontation between Huck and his drunk father Pap Finn, played by Andrew Lambert, this became quite obvious. Lambert played a villainous drunk very well, but when he was trying to intimidate Elzey as Huck, the effect was lost — Lambert was forced to stare up at the significantly taller Elzey.
Thankfully, Lambert’s stunning voice — he has perfected a jazzy growl that he sprinkled into his solo number “Guv’ment” with ease — made up for what otherwise would have seemed a poor casting choice.
Other powerful voices included Harper McGee, who plays Mary Jane Wilkes, and soloist Abigail Crist. These young vocalists filled the outdoors with their voices and left the audience wishing they had bigger parts.
The best casting choices were the villains: Duke, played by Logan Beaux, and King, played by Ryan Knowlton. These two bald screwball actors were reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, albeit a tad more sinister. Beaux and Knowlton made great use of the stage space, in part because of their enormous personalities.
Like any production, this musical was not without bumps in the road. A major one was the constant presence of Mark Twain. Portrayed by Steve Winters, this addition to the musical would have been forgettable if it hadn’t been so weird and uncomfortable. Every time I noticed Winters hanging around, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is Mark Twain here?”
Another small but odd detail were the socks Elzey was forced to wear at the beginning. The costuming was generally appropriate, fun and colorful without being distracting. I cannot emphasize enough that this particular costuming choice continually diverted my attention. Knee-length socks were a common costume choice and appropriate for the time period. However, bare legs for young boys was also fine and normal. Elzey’s socks were flesh-colored, as if to make him appear bare-legged, but clearly, he was wearing socks.
Either put him in normal socks or get rid of the socks. It’s that simple.
The final critique I feel compelled to give is the casting of “the boys,” a group of young men who frequently play and imagine with Tom and Huck. These “boys” are supposed to be around 13 years old, and some of them looked it more than others. However, one of the “boys” had a beard. Please, SCERA: make him shave it. There is nothing that makes this role less convincing than a beard.
Despite these oddities, the SCERA production of “Big River” was well done overall and fun to watch, and even better to listen to. The cast is full of truly talented people poised for bigger and better things, so you should see them while you have the chance.
Oh, and one more thing: don’t forget bug spray.