Sunday, October 10, 2010

A 'Huck' of a Good Time -- Theater Review: 'Big River' by Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Theater Review

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
a musical with music & lyrics by Roger Miller
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
Performed at Theatre Wit, Chicago
Run Now Ended (Sept. 10-Oct. 10, 2010)

Ignorance may be bliss, if a well-known saying is to be taken at face value, but as was the case in taking in the musical "Big River" for the first time, discovery can be even better.

Other than having a faint awareness of its existence, until learning about and catching a fine local production on Saturday night I truly was ignorant about the musical version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a book I sadly must admit to never having read.

Nor do I consciously remember even knowing that Big River is based on Twain's novel or was scored by Roger Miller, as I had never seen it, heard the music or read anything about it. I didn't know it had won the Tony for Best Musical (and six other categories) in 1985 or that its original Broadway run lasted 2-1/2 years. Largely ignorant of Miller himself, other than knowing of his famed King Of The Road song, I didn't know he had written Big River's music & lyrics in a bluegrass & country vein, which was quite unconventional for Broadway, particularly amidst the Cats/Les Miz/Phantom mid-'80s era.

I hadn't noticed the show being performed around Chicagoland over the last 10 years--when I've seen more than 200 other musicals--and I didn't initially take much notice of its run at Theatre Wit (formerly the Bailiwick Arts Center) as a production by the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble.

But thanks to Chicago Tribune Theater Critic Chris Jones, who gave the show a nice review, and the discount ticket website, Goldstar, from which I was able to buy a ticket for just $12 + fees, now I know.

And I consider myself better off for it.

Since the run has now ended, I won't overdo a detailed review, other than to say that the show and music were delightful. Upon this initial foray, I won't move Big River to the upper echelon of my list of favorite musicals--I'll have to publish one soon--but I really enjoyed what I saw and heard. Although Miller's musical stylings are much different than most Broadway scores or most of what I typically listen to, many numbers were instantly quite catchy, which is more than what I can say about a lot of showtunes or rock songs these days.

Although I didn't have to read Huck Finn (or Tom Sawyer) in high school, I was basically familiar with the story, which made for enjoyable theater.

And while apologizing for any seeming incredulity that might make this sound like a backhanded compliment, the cast of the Boho ensemble served to again astonish me in regards to the depth of talent working in Chicago theater, even far beyond the most famed stages. Especially in presuming the cast members and musicians--and there was much overlap--probably have day jobs as well, I was truly amazed at how good everyone sounded.

Andrew Mueller was excellent as Huck, Courtney Crouse likewise as Tom and Brian-Alwyn Newland was well-sung as Jim. Sean Thomas and John B. Leen, who like many cast members played numerous roles, were particularly enjoyable as the King and Duke, respectively. And as seven of the cast members also played instruments at various junctures, their talents were all the more impressive.

With sparse scenery suitable for the small theater (one of three performance spaces in the nicely remodeled venue), I can only imagine how good Big River might have been on Broadway with a full-blown setting and fuller orchestra/band. (Interestingly, per Wikipedia, a 2003 revival featured both deaf and hearing actors performing together, with about half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, played by deaf or hard-of-hearing performers. All dialogue and lyrics were both spoken/sung and signed.)

But all I ever ask of a downsized local production of an old musical is that I go away feeling that I gained a fairly good appreciation for the source material. Clearly, in this case, I did. Blissfully.

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