Review: "Big River"

Art Snob Blog
Dan Calgren.

The Mississippi flows at about two miles an hour, so pokey that it sometimes goes backwards. That’s slow, but not as slow as the production of “Big River” at the University of Alaska Anchorage seen at a preview on Thursday night. The program specifies the musical based on “Huckleberry Finn” runs "approximately two hours" with intermission. It lasted nearly three hours.

The original Broadway production won numerous awards in 1985 and ran for more than 1,000 shows. Today the simple, folky tunes by Roger Miller may seem dated; but subsequent revivals and touring productions — including one presented in Anchorage in 1990 with a cast half the size of UAA’s roster of 32 — have proved that they can still be “sold” to a modern audience with strong voices and high energy. 

Much of the script is a solo narrative by Huck, played here by Caleb Bourgeois, a fine actor and director in previous shows, but a marginal singer. The best voice in the cast belongs to bass Torrie Allen in the role of Jim, though he sounded a little strained on Thursday. Otherwise the musicality of the members of the ensemble ranged from adequate to not very good. 

That would have been acceptable given the genre had the presentation possessed liveliness, but Tom Skore’s direction tended toward the lugubrious. Choral and even solo numbers too often halted any momentum that might have developed during the spoken dialogue and contributed little to the dramatic trajectory, such as it was. A third could be cut without damaging the plot, as could a great deal of the talking. Also, the choreography, a key factor in the original success of the work, was blocky and unimaginative here.

Those unfamiliar with Mark Twain’s story, if any such exist, may still get a laugh as they encounter the schemes of Tom Sawyer (Taran Haynes), the “Duke” (Justin Stewart) and the “Dauphin” (Kordel Thompson). But, with the exception of the plight of the slave, Jim, they will not experience the stupendous humanity that makes the book an enduring masterpiece in which, chapter after chapter, one laughs and then weeps for the kaleidoscope of characters.

Of course this was a preview; it is possible that adjustments — or miracles — will occur to coax more fire from the coals of this production as the run continues.

BIG RIVER: THE TALE OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, will be presented at 3 p.m. Sundays and 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays through Nov. 24 at the UAA Mainstage. Tickets are $20 at


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Mike Dunham