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The Sound of Musicals

Theater Reviews: Big River and The Mystery of Edwin Drood

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The Great American Novel might just be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So trying to turn Mark Twain's beloved classic into a Broadway musical seems as treacherous, and potentially foolhardy, an undertaking as Huck's trip down the Mississippi.

But Big River succeeds because it captures both the absurdist humor and the moving core of the story, faithfully hewing to Twain's text while enhancing its emotional impact with a raft of good songs. The lively and polished St. Michael's Playhouse production, playfully directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews, features a boatload of strong performances in lead and supporting roles.

In Big River, Huck narrates his tale to the audience, jumping in and out of the action to provide commentary on his adventures, scrapes and narrow escapes. It is a tall order for a young actor, and John Gardiner filled it with a refreshing combination of boyish earnestness and knowing deadpan. His winning stage presence connected the play's sometimes disparate elements, propelled the action forward, and made the long show move with surprising speed.

As the story begins, Huck is the object of a custody dispute between his well-intentioned spinster guardian, Miss Watson, and his whiskey-soaked, abusive father, Pap. Mr. Finn is after the money Huck made in his last caper with pal Tom Sawyer. To escape, Huck fakes his own death and goes into hiding on an island in the Mississippi, where he stumbles across Miss Watson's slave, Jim, who has just fled because he feared he was about to be sold. The two runaways join forces and raft down the river. They are aiming for the Ohio River junction at Cairo, where Jim can head north for the free states to work and earn enough money to buy his wife and two children out of slavery.

To avoid capture, Huck and Jim travel only at night. But they overshoot Cairo in a fog, wind up deeper in the slaveholding South, and take aboard two scruffy stranded noblemen -- the "King" and the "Duke" -- who turn out to be royal con men. Hilarity and high drama ensue.

Roger Miller's music draws on an all-American array of styles -- blues, gospel, country and more -- to underscore the emotional swings in the action. For example, the hokey hillbilly silliness of Tom Sawyer's nonsensical tribute to pigs, "Hand for the Hog" -- performed with goofy charm by Jason Nettle -- contrasted sharply with the plaintive spiritual, "The Crossing," sung mournfully by Tymia R. Green and Simone Zamore. As recaptured slaves, they banged their heavy chains against the floor in time to the song.

Big River is a reminder that well-written musicals and operas do something that novels cannot: provide extra emotional depth through stop-and-sing moments of reflection. The close harmonies of three powerful duets -- "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain" and "Worlds Apart"-- give a rich clarity to the spiritual connection between Huck and Jim.

Dwelvan David gave a dynamic performance as Jim, a character whom society views as simple, but whose inner world is rich, complex and troubled. David's broad face and flashing eyes communicated the savvy beneath Jim's surface naivete, especially his prescient understanding of the natural world and innate sense about people. He also expressed Jim's pain at his forcible separation from his family. This, more than anything, is what helps Huck see Jim as a man, rather than a piece of Miss Watson's property.

The warmth and robustness of David's voice expressed his character eloquently. When he sang "Free at Last" near the end of the show, Jim's conviction and passion was palpable to the audience.

Huck and Jim's duets were musical and emotional high points of Big River -- and their voices blended with buttery richness. "Worlds Apart" is a potent song with universal resonance: "I see the same stars through my window / You see through yours ... / I see the same sky through brown eyes / That you see through blue." It was a testament to the singers' professionalism that they stayed on course despite the trumpet's off-key entry midway through the song. The occasional rough patch from that instrument was the only weak spot in Tom Cleary's otherwise solid sextet, which created a sound much larger than its size.

Huck struggles with his conscience about helping "steal" Jim out of slavery, but the essential morality of his quest is thrown into relief by the utter amorality of the King and the Duke, played with comic gusto by Kenneth Kimmins and Bill Farley. "They had as many schemes as a possum does ticks," Huck soon realizes. The "royal" rogues incited a laugh riot, but Kimmins often overmatched Farley: His singing was stronger, his dancing more precise, his con more convincing, even when the Duke was supposed to be teaching him the game.

Jason Nettle as Tom Sawyer was also a comic highlight: charming but harebrained, secure in his self-importance. Tom is a dreamer, a hatcher of impossibly elaborate schemes; Huck doesn't so much plan his adventures as stumble into them and muddle through. Another key supporting player, John Alexander, played Pap with a broad odiousness, and sang a brilliantly bluesy, syncopated version of his drunken rant, "Guv'ment."

Sets, lighting and costuming all served to enhance the storytelling. The backdrop, painted Hudson River School-style, was especially effective; it glowed or receded as the lighting changed. Multiple stage levels allowed for plenty of motion, and the moving raft worked well.

Problems with the wireless body microphones did prove a minor distraction throughout the show. While the lead characters' sound levels were mostly consistent, some of the supporting actors' mikes performed erratically. The feed dimmed when someone removed a hat, turned his head sharply, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all.

At the end of the show, Huck reflects on his Mississippi voyage before planning his next adventure. "Considerable trouble, considerable joy -- that's how it fell out, just like Jim's fortune predicted." Big River is a joyful journey, worthy of a trip up -- or down -- the mighty Winooski.

*****

A madcap murder mystery unfolds by Waitsfield's Mad River with the Valley Players' gleeful production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Under the artful direction of Ruth Ann Pattee, the eager troupe does its bawdy best in Rupert Holmes' quirky musical take on Charles Dickens' unfinished last novel. Despite a few rough edges, the ambitious and unusual show's blithe spirit delighted the audience.

The play's plot is virtually impossible to summarize. Set in 1892, the action occurs onstage at the Music Hall Royale, where the premiere of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is taking place. Each performer plays a member of the Victorian acting company and the character that the 19th-century thespian is playing in the Music Hall production of Drood. Got it? It takes a while to establish the play-within-a-play conceit, and to begin to sort out who some of the dozen-plus main characters are.

In Act I, Edwin Drood, a young Londoner of means, is visiting the town of Cloisterham, home of his fiancee Rosa Bud and his beloved uncle John Jasper. In the course of his holiday visit, he manages to alienate just about everyone in town who doesn't already have a secret reason to loathe him. After a dark and stormy Christmas Eve, Drood vanishes and his bloodied overcoat turns up by the river. Act II assembles all the unusual suspects, and lets the audience decide who done it.

To say the cast sang, danced and acted with enthusiasm is a gross understatement; the players threw themselves headlong into the farcical mayhem. No entendre went undoubled. Eyebrows arched archly; puns were punishing. High-kicking choreographic horseplay ensued. It was all hams on deck.

As Chairman of the Music Hall, Jack Bradt presided with sly affability over the self-conscious silliness. He doubled as the senescent Mayor Sapsea, sometimes jumping between roles within the same sentence with a swift lift of his bowler hat. Jake Barickman's vulpine reserve as the angular Anglican, Reverend Crisparkle, hinted at a steamy secret under his clerical collar. Thomas Badowski incorporated broad, Keystone-Cop body language as the nightstick-wielding bobby, Horace, but as actor Montague Pruitt, he suavely let female audience members know he was available for "rent" after the show.

Actors delivered puns and portents with flippant flourish. During the climactic Christmas Eve feast at Jasper's house, interrupted by melodramatically loud thunder effects, tensions escalate between all the main characters. Drood is especially aggrieved by young Neville Landless: "While your metaphors seem stale, your manners seem uncommonly fresh." When Jasper apologizes for subpar wine, another guest demurs, after a booming thunderclap: "Any port in a storm." At a particularly overwrought moment, the servant Bazzard announces the poultry's arrival ominously enough to let on whose goose is really cooked.

In the relatively minor role of Bazzard, Bryan Wockley exemplified the cast's dedication. He spent two months growing out squirrelly, authentic Victorian muttonchops. Others in the cast cultivated their character's beards as well: no prosthetic facial hair for the men of the Valley Players! In addition, Wockley created props and assisted with set construction, one of many in the cast who also served on the crew.

The Gilbert & Sullivan-esque music of Drood is intricate and demanding -- more English operetta than Broadway musical. The ensemble mostly rose to the challenge. The strongest singers were Michael LeMay as the leering and lascivious Jasper, Andrea Bonamico as virginal vixen Rosa Bud, and Pam White as Princess Puffer -- mistress of the London opium den where Jasper is a frequent flier -- who laments: "You can't fill your coffers with the wages of sin."

Music director and pianist Tim Guiles ably led the seven-person band through the complex score. But the instruments sometimes overwhelmed the vocalists: In the small space, lighter voices struggled to be heard over the horns and drums. This detracted from the storytelling, since characters exposed their secrets through song. Singers with clarion diction and forceful projection, like LeMay and Bonamico, could always be understood. And Pattee creatively staged some numbers at floor level, in front of the musicians, which helped make lyrics more audible.

The set design was surprisingly innovative, given the square theater's close quarters. Scene changes were sometimes slow and noisy, but Guiles improvised amusingly at the keyboard to fill the gaps. One crowd-pleasing detail was the crypt that slid in dramatically from the back of the house for the graveyard scenes. Costumes cascaded with brocade, ruffles and lace, and makeup had an exaggerated theatricality.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood exemplifies what keeps community theater vibrant in Vermont: enthusiastic lovers of the stage are willing to commit hundreds of hours to entertain fellow townspeople. With a talented and fun-loving troupe like the Valley Players, it's no mystery why frolicking in front of the footlights is thriving in the Green Mountains.

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