Greenbelt Arts Center Big RiverBy Bob Ashby • Apr 24th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Greenbelt Arts Center: (Info) (Web)
Greenbelt Arts Center, Greenbelt, MD
Through May 4th
2:45 with one intermission
Reviewed April 20th, 2013
Performing a big musical with a big cast like Big River in a small space is no small task. Greenbelt Arts Center’s production succeeds in a big way. It starts with Jen Retterer’s set design. Covering the theater’s walls are printouts of the text of pages and illustrations from “Huckleberry Finn,” drawing audience members into the world of Mark Twain’s novel before they ever reach their seats. Surrounding a painted backdrop showing a bucolic rural scene are Lydia Wallis’ striking black and white line drawings of trees and reeds, in front of which is a low platform that serves as Huck’s raft, among other purposes. Save for a modest number of set dressing pieces, that’s all that is needed to provide a sense of place and a functional environment for the action.
Retterer, it should be noted, is a triple threat in the production. Besides her work on the set and a brief appearance in Act II as a foolish young girl, she is an excellent, thoroughly believable Tom Sawyer, being a loyal pal to Huck, complicating everyone’s life with goofily complicated schemes, and ultimately showing great courage. Retterer sings strongly as well, particularly in Tom’s “Hand for the Hog,” and later projects a very different vocal quality in the foolish girl’s “Arkansas.”
The central character, of course, is Huck, played in an engaging aw shucks way by Mike Cullhane. Huck is a long, demanding role — he is offstage only for a brief scene in Act II — and Cullhane’s energy never flags. He transitions seamlessly from his narrations of the story into interactions with the other characters and back again, and he clearly shows Huck’s moral growth as he comes to recognize his responsibility for Jim and others in his world. Cullhane does not have a pure Broadway-style voice, but he sells his songs effectively. “I, Huckleberry Me” and his duets with Jim, the escaped slave who is Huck’s companion on the raft (“River in the Rain,” “Muddy Water,” and “Worlds Apart”) are notable, and Cullhane’s sound is very consistent with the character. His diction on spoken lines is a bit murky at times, however, and he resorts to tugging on his overall straps a little too frequently.
The dominant voice and presence on stage belong to Kevin Sockwell as Jim. Sockwell uses his strong, penetrating, expressive high baritone instrument to great effect, not only in his duets with Huck but also in the powerfully moving second act solo, “Free at Last.” Sockwell’s Jim at times has a knowing, ironic take on things and people around him. Jim’s loneliness, sadness, fear, and yearning for freedom also register vividly. In any case, this is a slave who one cannot imagine ever having been subservient.
There are several memorable small and large performances among the large supporting cast. Dan McMillan’s drunken rendition of “Guv’Ment” pegs Pap Finn as an early prototype of the Tea Party. Penny Martin is tack-sharp as Huck’s Bible-spouting nemesis, Miss Watson. Dayleen DeRiggs has a beautifully sung, mournful solo as a slave woman in “The Crossing.”
The most important supporting roles belong to the Duke (Brian Binney) and the King (David Weaver), two con men who Huck and Jim pick up along the river. Binney, a polished actor who makes the Duke’s pastiche of Shakespeare lines even sound somewhat like Shakespeare, leads the very silly Act II opening number “The Royal Nonesuch,” as the pair deludes the local rubes with a tale of a preposterous humanoid monster (scarcely less preposterous, Twain would no doubt be amused to discover, than what one can find on cable TV channels nowadays). The Duke also has a perhaps unintentionally amusing prop moment when he wields a pad of Post-It notes. His partner in crime, Weaver’s King, is as oily as can be as he tries to lift the inheritance of an innocent girl, Mary Jane Wilkes (Spencer Nelson). What’s most significant is the evolution of the King and the Duke, as Huck and the audience see them, from amusing grifters to casually evil men who think nothing of selling Jim and other slaves down the river for a few dollars. The contrast between these fake aristocrats and the natural aristocracy of Jim is one of the show’s strongest points.
Like many in the cast, Binney (also Judge Thatcher) and Weaver (also a doctor) play multiple roles, and Ginny Zanner’s colorful costume design keeps up with the frequent changes involved. Denim-based for the most part, with countrified plaid or down and dirty shirts as appropriate to various characters, the men’s costumes also include respectable dark suits for the upscale characters. The women’s outfits are mainly of the skirt and blouse variety, and are likewise suitable to the period.
Generally, Mary Lou Fisher’s direction keeps the production moving smoothly, with due attention to the spectators in the side seating areas as well as the main bank of seats. She makes occasional good use of the theater’s two side posts and side aisles in ensemble numbers. Given the number of people per square foot of playing space, there are moments in the full-cast numbers (e.g., “Do Ya Want To Go to Heaven?”) in which movement becomes more a matter of traffic management than choreography. While this is not a dance-heavy show, choreographer Kathleen Moors provides some nice moments, such as the opening tap routine featuring the delightful Isabella Dodro.
Chris Wells’ band, some members of which were on stage at times, conveyed Roger Miller’s country/blues/gospel-influenced score with fine timing and energy. They were not note-perfect at all times, but in context of this show, the occasional imperfections fit the down-home atmosphere and did not distract. There were also some strained or off-pitch vocal moments in a few of the ensemble numbers. Tom Zanner’s lighting design, while leaving actors in shadows on a few occasions, generally made good use of the space’s somewhat limited resources, and it was particularly effective in distinguishing the night scenes (typically done in blue light) from others.
As distinct from shows mounted by some of the larger, more abundantly resourced, groups the area, Big River was clearly a community theater production, with several family groups prominent among the cast and production staff. But it is a good illustration of the proposition that community theater can be very good theater, and that an intelligently conceived community production that its participants care about can have a quality result.
Welcome to the literary world of Mark Twain.
As you enter our book sit back and enjoy your trip from St. Petersburg, Missouri down the Big River past Jackson’s Island. Drift by St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio empties into the Mississippi, continue south past Tennessee and you will end up in Arkansas. On the way you will meet the characters Samuel Clemens created, drawing from his own background, to populate his novel “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.”
“Huck Finn is a child of his time, like the author who created him. Both character and author struggled to recognize and correct some of the wrongs of their society. Both learned to listen to the teachings of their sound hearts.” — The Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide For The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn
Big River uses an ensemble cast in which the actors play multiple roles. In this production, we have also used nontraditional casting. This allows some of our talented cast to appear in roles normally reserved for members of the opposite sex. As a member of the audience we ask you to suspend disbelief and see the characters as they are meant to be.
I fell in love with Big River when I saw a performance by Deaf West Theatre at Ford’s Theater in Washington. The roles were played by both hearing and deaf actors using spoken English and American Sign Language combined with dance and storytelling. The fluid and energetic motions were a perfect accompaniment to the lively and sometimes haunting music and lyrics of Roger Miller. If you ever have an opportunity to see this production I urge you to do so. You can also view some selections on YouTube.
Special thanks go to my Assistant Director, Lela Zanner Moors, and her daughter, our Choreographer, Katy Moors, for their help in bringing this book to life. Not only have they served behind stage, but you will also see them appear in today’s performance. A show I direct wouldn’t be complete without our Costumer, Ginny Zanner, who is a founding member of both GAC and MAD and can also be seen in the chorus. And to make the ‘family’ complete, Tommy Zanner, Ginny’s son, is our lighting designer.
A shout out also goes to our Set Designer, Jen Retterer, who created the book you are ‘reading’ and also took over the role of Tom Sawyer when one of our cast had to withdraw, and to our Producer, Beryl Feldman, for her invaluable assistance and being our ‘Universal Understudy’ and filling in wherever needed.
And finally, a great big HUG to the talented cast, crew and orchestra for making it possible to share this wonderful show with you. Now I can put the wet noodles away until the next show.
- Huck Finn: Mike Culhane
- Jim: Kevin Sockwell
- Tom Sawyer/Young Fool: Jen Retterer
- Judge Thatcher/Duke: Brian Binney
- King/Doctor/First Man: David Weaver
- Mary Jane Wilkes: Spencer Nelson
- Widow Douglas/Sally Phelps: Tri Whitehall
- Miss Watson/Tart/Chorus: Penny Martin
- Pap Finn/Sheriff Bell: Dan MacMillan
- Alice: Dayleen DeRiggs:
- Alice’s Daughter/Slave Woman/Chorus: Cheramie Julianne Jackson
- Alice’s Grandmother: Isabella Dodro
- Jo Harper/Joanna Wilkes: Erin Delaney
- Dick/Andy/Ben/Susan Wilkes: Beryl Feldman
- Strange Woman: Shirley Weaver
- Mark Twain/Lafe/Counselor Robinson/Harvey Wilkes/Silas Phelps: Brian Moors
- Simon: Kathleen Moors
- Slave Woman/Chorus: Katrina Dodro
- Slave Woman/Chorus: Olayinka Ebony Magnanimous
- Slave Woman/Chorus: Annette Landers
- Tart/Chorus: Becky Granatstein
- Tart/Chorus: Lelia Moors
- Bum/Chorus: Ginny Zanner
- Conductor: Christine Wells
- Fiddle/Violin: Anne Gardner, Mairead Alexander
- Harmonica: Michael K. Heney
- Guitar: Pete Pinocci
- Piano: Daniel Lu, Jonathan Hellerman
- String Bass: Glenn Harris
- Guitar: Tony Miller
- Percussion: Kevin Uleck, Rob Gersten
- Trombone: David Buckingham, Tom Jackson, Webster A. Rogers, Jr.
- Trumpet: Hal Gordon, Rich Sonnenschein
- Woodwinds: Steve Shivers
- Director: Mary Lou Fisher
- Assistant Director: Lelia Moors
- Music Director: Chris Wells
- Choreographer: Kathleen Moors
- Producer: Baryl Feldman
- Stage Manager: Laura Fisher
- Asst. Stage Manager: Scott Dodro
- Set Design: Jen Ritterer
- Lighting Design: Tom Zanner
- Sound Design: David Weaver
- Set Construction Lead: Fred Wells
- Set Painting Lead: Jen Retterer
- Costume Design: Ginny Zanner
- Wardrobe Mistress: Penny Martin
- Hair and Makeup Design: Susan Heney
- Set Construction and Painting: Trina Fisher, Gerald Martin, & the Company
- Lighting Technician: James Chatham
- Sound Technician: Reginald Cruz
- Program & Publications Design: Betsy Marks Delaney
- Program Content: Beryl Feldman & Mary Lou Fisher
- Photographer: Andrew Doorly Culhane
- Box Office/House Manager: Dottie Spivacke
- Original Program Cover Art: Lynda Wallis
Disclaimer: Greenbelt Arts Center provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9403.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.