Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
Adapted from Mark Twain’s now controversial yet quintessential American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Flint Community Players opened its final offering of the 2013-2014 season Thursday with the musical Big River. We’ve come to expect a certain level of excellence from FCP especially in musical productions. We were disappointed this time.
A multiple Tony Award winner, this isn’t a new script, but it is lively with much potential to set toes tapping. Roger Miller’s (“King of the Road”) music and lyrics provide a range from upbeat to mellow and sprinkled with wit, but the renditions Thursday were often stiff and even garbled.
Director Frank E. Pitts III chose to use a recorded musical track rather than live music, and that decision produced other problems. We wonder why he didn’t simply opt for piano accompaniment which would have worked as well, offered versatility, and kept down the long waits (dead air) as singers held for the right spot in the track to begin singing.
As for the performers, Joshua Hansz seemed too young for the role of Huck. He lacked the swagger and rough-edged defensiveness that characterizes Twain’s Huck. Joshua does have a good, strong voice, and as basically the narrator and lead character, he never faltered when reciting what seemed the bulk of the show’s spoken lines.
Characterization was another problem Thursday. A majority of lines in this production seemed delivered by rote. Except for a few veteran performers, speeches were uninspiring and often not intelligible. Planned movement, too, seemed to have been forgotten. Folks were planted in place for songs, and the total lack of choreography in a musical was incredible.
There were bright spots. As the Duke and the King, Mark Vukelich and Mike Davis brought enthusiasm, clear diction, and rambunctiously evil wackiness to the FCP stage. (Thank heaven!) We were also happy to see William Kircher’s roaring version of Huck’s Pap come alive in his “Guv’ment” rail against the system.
As Jim, the runaway slave befriended and defended by Huck, Rafeal McDaniel’s terrific vocals were his saving grace. The character’s strength emerged in McDaniel’s songs but seemed to recede otherwise.
Jesse Glenn’s set for this show is quite well done. If affords a variety of spaces and levels with lots of wood and rocks to portray the Missouri backwoods setting. With much of the show spent on the “raft”, the bridge and the river drop served nicely.
Still, this production leaves a lot to be desired. Characterization is minimal with recitation rather than interpretation the rule. Vocals were often well done, but with occasional off-key moments. Maybe more rehearsal was needed, and maybe it will improve over time. Let’s hope so.
Big River continues at Flint Community Players’ Tom & Bea Nobles Performance Hall, 2462 S. Ballenger Hwy, Flint, MI 48507 through May 18. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-235-6963 or online at http://www.flintcommunityplayers.com