I’ve run hot and cold on productions from CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre in recent years. (I’ve seen every big summer production since 2007′s “The Sound of Music,” and a number of shows off and on before that for a decade.) For me, this year’s “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which I saw Friday night, falls somewhere in the middle — in the “warm” category, you could say.
There’s a lot I liked about this show in terms of individual performances, and director Josh Montgomery has crafted a nice sense of ensemble among the cast, which is smaller, tighter and more cohesive than some of the company’s more sprawling past productions. But keeping in mind the limitations of community theater, I think there’s something awkward about the way the production tries to position itself somewhere between intimate musical and big spectacle. The production design is a little thin for the material, and while there are many fine musical and dramatic moments, the show didn’t deliver the overall emotional resonance I expect from “Big River.”
As the indefatigable Huck Finn, local theater veteran Maxwell Debbas gives a sturdy performance in the leading role in this adaptation of Mark Twain’s most famous work. With his rolled-up overalls and slouchy straw hat, his Huck has an easy, wise-cracking air. (Patti Karsevar’s costumes are nicely done.) Deeper than that, Debbas finds within his character a foundation of gentle introspection.
“Big River,” with music and lyrics by Roger Miller, and a book by William Hauptman, is the story of a journey, of course. When Huck decides to run away from his abusive father (a feisty and effective Mark Russell) and head with the runaway slave Jim (the impressively voiced Lamont Walker) down the grand Mississippi, it takes an able narrator to make that journey cohesive. Debbas’ vocals in such classic numbers as “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain” might not be the strongest facet of his performance, but his amiable stage presence is far more important.
As Huck and Jim travel down the river, their relationship deepens, with Huck’s eyes gradually opening to the perniciousness of slavery. They stop at various points along the way, picking up a couple of con men named the Duke and the King (played respectively by Justin Debbas and Peter Allen, both quite able) and embarking on various schemes and adventures involving the townspeople they meet.
Montgomery is deft at ensemble numbers, with the opening song “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven” a strong example of his ability to move lots of people effectively around the stage. I loved the physicality and commitment of the members of Tom Sawyer’s gang, who scamper about with merry abandon in “The Boys.” (Mitchell Lam Hau is a standout as Tom.) In her featured role as Mary Jane Wilkes, Nicholle Debbas is another strong performer, with her vocals on “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go” a highlight.
The scaled-down orchestra, under the able direction of Pete Van Der Paardt, does a nice job with the twangy, country-gospel score, and the balance between musicians and singers was first-rate.
But there are parts of this show that just didn’t work for me.What bothers me most is that for a musical all about forward motion and the flow of the river, it feels mostly static. Huck and Jim’s raft is immobile throughout, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t stuck way upstage, as far from the audience as possible. I kept wanting that raft to at least come forward to give us some intimacy with the characters. And I wanted some sensation of movement, something that Lexie Fabbian’s lighting design — which has some weak moments overall — doesn’t help with in any way.
A key part of “Big River” is the role of Jim. It’s through him that Mark Twain’s progressive (at least for the time) and poignant message of hope and equality comes through. Walker has some fine and impassioned moments in terms of the spoken text, and his vocals are impressive, particularly in the show-stopping number “Free at Last.” But the physical choices he makes in that song, and the way it’s directed, work against its effectiveness. Walker begins in a clenched position, away from the audience, and as the song builds I think the idea is for him to open up in terms of posture and relationship to the audience. But he remains far too clenched in those final notes, his arms frantic instead of assured, robbing the moment of some of its natural theatrical glory.
Overall, there’s some solid work in this “Big River.” I certainly walked out humming “River in the Rain.” And the hard-working folks in Clovis are to be commended for putting so much effort into their annual show. It’s a very capable production — but one that I think has some flaws.