Thrilling theater by way of “Big River”

Kristen Di Leonardo

Mark Twain’s American classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is now rolling musically through campus under the name “Big River.” Written by William Hauptman and set to music by Roger Miller, the Tony Award-winning musical, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” concludes Villanova Theater’s 2004-2005 season in Vasey with a bang. Under the direction of Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., a wonderfully talented cast brings to life Huck’s childhood adventures along the Mississippi to life.

“Big River” delivers an adventurous young boy and a runaway slave who find friendship along the muddy waters of the Mississippi. In a time of slavery and hate, Huck and Jim discover a true bond although they come from worlds apart.

Breaking away from routine and “civilization,” Huck meets up with Jim. In the words of Mark Twain, “There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” Each is running from oppression – Huck from his aunts and Jim from slavery – and in that flight they discover the meaning of loyalty and friendship.

The adventures of Huck and Jim teach a valuable lesson. As Roger Miller said, “We are pilgrims on a journey through the darkness of the night. We are bound for other places crossing to the other side.”

Along the way, the two lead characters meet up with two miscreants: the king and the duke. As comical villains, the king and the duke provide entertainment, danger and a heap of trouble for Huck. On the road of discovering himself, Huck encounters other unforgettable characters: Tom Sawyer, Mary Jane Wilkes, and his Pap, to name a few. Huck’s rambunctious nature combined with each of these wily adventures ensures there is never a dull moment.

Larry Cox Jr. and Michael Hogan – Huck Finn and Jim – combine their talents to provide an exceptional performance. Hogan is captivating as Jim, Huck’s companion. His moving rendition of “Free at Last” leaves audiences spellbound. The duets, “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain” and “Worlds Apart,” were beautifully performed by Hogan and Cox; the duo was perfectly matched to provide breathtakingly emotive music.

Larry Cox Jr. proves that everyone can identify with some part of Huck Finn. His constant eye contact with the audience makes them feel like part of the adventure and draws them into his emotional journey.

As 13-year-old boys, Cox and Nick Falco (Tom Sawyer) are charmingly convincing with their boyish innocence and camaraderie. Falco’s whimsical song and dance solo, “Hand for the Hog,” is catchy and brings a smile to spectators’ faces. They almost forgive Tom Sawyer his devastating need for danger and difficulty, thanks to Falco’s endearing portrayal of innocence.

Josh Sauerman and Jason J. Michael are unforgettable as partners in crime, the duke and the king. Sauerman is a crowd-pleaser as the duke; he is quickly the center of viewers’ attention. The overly dramatic duke, who promotes himself as a “famous” actor, poses as the usurped Duke of Bridgewater. Sauerman shines as the singing, dancing performer; his vivid performance was delightful.

Michael is wonderful as the con artist who quickly joins company with the “duke” and deems himself “dauphin,” the son of King Louis XVI and heir to the French throne. The pair latches onto Huck and Jim, carrying out a number of cruel swindles along the river. Sauerman and Michael are crowd-pleasers with numbers such as “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” and “The Royal Nonesuch.”

The ensemble is magnificent; from the whimsical song and dance to the poignant gospel tunes, audiences ride a roller coaster of emotion. Francine Marchelle and Kimberly Carol Townsend beautifully perform a moving rendition of Miller’s first hymn, “How Blest We Are.” As the three Wilkes sisters, Tonilyn Longo, Lizzie Hetzer and Tricia Elms move many in the audience to tears with their performance of “You Oughta Be Here With Me.”

There are also superb musical performances by Andy Joos, Deborah Crane, Elizabeth Pool, and Michael Barr. Songs such as, “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven,” “Muddy Water,” and “I, Huckleberry, Me” keep toes tapping.

“Big River” provides a perfectly enjoyable evening of musical theater. The pleasant mix of students and season ticket-holders create an air of bustling excitement throughout the theater. After being greeted with a smile by the ever-accommodating staff, headed by house manager Rafael Dueno, you are ready to begin the adventure.

Dirk Durossette’s charming set design immediately peaks the audience’s interest. An orchestra seated behind the action instills life into the magical sounds of Roger Miller’s music. The orchestra consists of Jim Ryan, David Binanay, Parris Bradley, Chris Clark, Mark Cristofaro, Katie Lachance, Brian Stike and John Stovicek.

“Big River” is sure to be a tremendous success at Villanova University and a spectacular way to close the 2004-2005 theater season. Performances are April 5- 24, 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets range from $18-$22. Seniors, students, and groups receive discounts. For tickets call the Villanova Theater Box Office at 519-7474.

I highly recommend “Big River.” You will leave the theater singing.