Review: 'Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' at Sharon Playhouse

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Onstage Connecitcut Critic

 Look out for me, oh muddy water

Your mysteries are deep and wide
And I got a need for going some place
And I got a need to climb upon your back and ride

Sharon, CT - ‘Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, with a strong emphasis on the adventure and no removal of the racism, slavery and minimal sometimes jarring language. Sharon Playhouse opened a good-sized production of the musical with a book written by William Hauptman and wonderful music and lyrics by Roger Miller. If the story of Huck Finn is not your idea of an enlightened or even interesting plot, the quality of the musical numbers and the production values in the Sharon production directed with care by John Simpkins (in his sixth season as Artistic Director) should hold your interest.

The nine-piece band, under the direction of musical director James Cunningham, began the first act hidden behind the massive wooden scenery designed by Josh Smith.

Then during the first act closing number they were revealed to be sitting in a row at the back of the stage and for the rest of the performance could be seen. It was fun to be able to see the fiddle player Barney Stevens and the rest of his fellow musicians as they played the fine score. My favorite musical numbers included the boys on “The Boys,” Huck and Jim on “Muddy Water,” and Alice and her fellow slaves on a heartfelt “The Crossing.”

Jennifer Werner did the choreography for the talented male dancers in the chorus and Michelle Eden Humphrey was in charge of a wide variety of period Southern costumes. Stunning lighting designed by Ken Wills set the mood of the land of the “Muddy Water.”

There were a few feedback issues with the sound designed by Emma Wilk unfortunately.

This large cast ranged in age from older teen to a few older adults, with Tom and Huck and their “boys” being mostly played by college-aged actors. Joseph Allen, a rising junior at Penn State,  was seldom off-stage in the title role of Huck Finn and I never tired of hearing his wonderful singing voice. His partner in crime was Alex Dorf, a rising senior at Penn State, in the role of Tom Sawyer. The boys were played by Richard Spitaletta, Johnathan Teeling, Aiden Wharton, and Tyler Altomari (who was Flounder in Sharon Playhouse’s ‘Little Mermaid.) Galyana Castillo sang with plenty of soul in the role of a slave named Alice with strong back up vocals by Charisse Shields and Reuben E. Hoyle IV. Libby Rosenfield, Lily Autumn Page, Jacqueline Minogue, Sarah Anne Fuller Hogewood and Julia Hemp, who all appeared in this season’s ‘Gypsy!,’ were part of the female ensemble and played small roles as well.

David Fanning (Gypsy!) played the judge and Harvey Wilkes, while Nick Case was the sheriff and others. Dave Cadwell played a counselor and a doctor. Connecticut community theatre veteran Susan Hackel played the sister of the Widow Douglas (Ginny Rickard) and Penn State graduate Carrie Lyn Brandon played the young bereaved Mary Jane Wilkes. It was so good to see two actors return to the Sharon Playhouse stage in “royal” roles. Thomas Cannizzaro, who was so good as King Arthur in ‘Spamalot,’ played a faux duke and once again had wonderful stage presence. His partner in crime was played by Travis Mitchell (Ed Earle in ‘The Best Little...’) who doubled as a pretend king and Huck’s father Pap. It was fun to watch the interplay between these two talented actors. The bass voice of Nicholas Ward was an amazing instrument as he performed the role of runaway slave Jim. Mr. Ward made his Sharon debut in a piece of work “that truly touches his soul” a memorable one.

What I will remember most about this production are the fabulous musical performances, ‘Big River’ continues at Sharon Playhouse through July 31. The Playhouse’s Community Cabaret and BBQ will be held on July 27, directed by Sarah Combs. ‘Quartet,’ a play by Ronald Harwood, runs Aug.18 - 28. Up first is ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,’ with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, that runs at the Bok Gallery Aug. 4-14

Photos by Randy O'Rourke