Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by P. Marston Sullivan
Music direction by Nicholas Davio
Choreography by Erick Mac
Produced by Boho Theatre
At Theater Wit, Chicago
A star is born as Andrew Mueller channels Huckleberry Finn in the wonderful Boho Theatre production of Big River
Boho Theatre has the honor of mounting the first musical in Theatre Wit’s new adaptable 3rd theatre. The sound was impeccably clear and easy. No need for microphones here as the cast deftly sang and many played instruments in this winning musical version of Mark Twain’s classic coming of age adventure tale of friendship. Big River, the winner of 5, 1985 Tony’s including best musical and best score, is remounted with effective changes designed to give the show a more authentic and intimate feel. Director P. Marston Sullivan and music director Nicholas Davio wisely put their jug band on stage and had many of the cast members and band members double as musicians or actors. This enhanced and showcased the versatile talents of the cast.
Big River hasn’t been revisited in Chicago for years. Kudos to Boho Theatre for passing on this gem of Americana to a new generation of theatre patrons. Roger Miller’s score is a pastiche of truly American sounds as he blends folk, country, gospel,blues and spirituals with old-time vaudeville melodies into a folk operetta. This is a toe-tapping score with several hum-able take-home songs.
Big River is the retelling of Huck Finn’s adventure that finds him and his friend Jim moving through the river each escaping troubles in their lives. Andrew Mueller (the youngest of the expert Mueller clan that has enriched the musical stages in Chicago for years), has all the tools necessary to be a most likable Huckleberry Finn – charm, boyish innocence, with enough guile to manipulate through Twain’s adventures. Mueller adds strong guitar picking with a golden tenor voice that nails his songs with verve. When Mueller belts “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” we know he’ll do the right thing.
Huck’s commitment to help Jim (Brian-Alwyn Newland) escape to freedom is a genuine exemplar of true friendship. The two bond in the stirring “Muddy Water” anthem as they glide down river in search of adventure. The emotional “River in the Rain” links the two nicely.
The adventures escalate when they meet two river-rat con-men – Duke (John L. Leen) and his partner King (Sean Thomas) as they entice Huck into their cons with the cute vaudeville tune “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.”
Act two finds all the expected Huck Finn adventures wonderfully and hilariously performed by the cast. Leen and Thomas are fabulous as the inept confidence men. Huck and Tom Sawyer (Courtney Crouse in a well-rounded performance) help Jim to gain his freedom in a series of wild plot twists. Newland emotionally land “Free at Last” aided by his rich voice. The staging and arrangement of this song was quite moving.
Big River has the elements of a heart-felt American down-home musical – terrific songs, a fine band, a wonderful ensemble of talents equally adapt at acting, comedy, singing and musicianship. This is a ‘feel-good,’ yet sophisticated musical that is family-friendly entertainment. Andrew Mueller, John B. Leen and Sean Thomas anchor the work. Your journey down the Big River navigates right into your soul. I’m still humming “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine.” Big River is a ‘must-see.’
At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, tickets $25, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission.