June 21--DECATUR -- "Big River" is a big show that hinges on big performances. The new musical at Sullivan's Little Theatre-On the Square is an impressive star vehicle for its lead performers in this musical retelling of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," particularly Andrew Kruep in the lead role and Gilbert Domally as the escaped slave, Jim. Together, they make for one of The Little Theatre's most impressive recent duos.
Author Mark Twain himself narrates this adventure on the Mississippi River, portrayed by the lanky Josh Houghton, who towers over the story in a way fitting for the novel's creator. The world he describes is antebellum Missouri, a border between free and slave states and a time when racial tensions were reaching a boiling point. Into this world he throws Huck Finn, a literary character who created an archetype -- a sort of genial, simple troublemaker with a heart of gold.
The part of Huck is undoubtedly the musical's most important, and in this respect, Kruep truly shines. Through some combination of costuming and natural ability, he just looks the part. He projects everything Huck Finn should, which is first and foremost a sort of humble, good-natured sincerity. His higher vocal range blends perfectly with the lower range of Domally as Jim, turning songs such as "Muddy Water" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" into showpieces.
The two leads aren't the only fine singers, though. "Big River" is a primarily vocal show, and everyone who is given a chance to lead a number carries it with aplomb. Most notable are the pair of trickster rogues, The Duke (Martin C. Hurt) and The King (John McAveney), who power through humorous songs such as "The Royal Nonesuch" and provide some much-needed levity.
That levity is appreciated because "Big River" is a fairly sobering show, given its subject matter and time period. The language is as coarse as one might expect, but beyond that, there's an unusual attitude of gallows humor and the macabre at times for a Broadway show. Rarely have so many musical characters threatened to kill each other in the brief lulls between upbeat country tunes.
Musically, those songs might be described as country or bluegrass at times, but they're still built atop a bed of classic musical theater, making the score not so different as one might expect. Behind the violin, there's still a piano and brass section. Where it differs is in the breakdown between songs and dance numbers, as there are only a few large-scale numbers that involve the entire chorus at once. These numbers certainly will get cheers from audiences on account of their scale, but the best performances are actually in the smaller songs that let individual performers shine, as Domally does on "Free at Last."
"Big River" is a significant departure from the tap-dancing pep that kicked off the season in "42nd Street." It's a more emotionally intense experience with a southern twist, some dark humor and strong performances from its leads. This tandem of Huck and Jim prove capable skippers in more ways than one.
(c)2014 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)
Visit the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.) at www.herald-review.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services