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CCM’s “Big River” Brings to Life an American Classic

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Big River: CCM Musical Theater

For much of the first act of CCM’s musical production , Big River, I kept “waiting for the light to shine”—and golly gee willickers, it finally did as this talented student cast settled into a balanced, heartfelt and thought-provoking staging of the hit Broadway show, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleblerry Finn. Big River, which won multiple Tony Awards in 1985, including Best Musical and Best Original Score by Roger Miller, follows Huck Finn and the runaway slave, Jim, down the Mississippi with evocative music filled with gospel and country flavor.

After a rousing opening number (“Do You Want to Go to Heaven”), Big River at first seemed to drift aimlessly, feeling a little too theatrical and stylized. But once Huckleberry Finn (played by Karl Amundson) meets Jim (Phillip Johnson) and they start their escape down the Mississippi, the production picked up speed and flowed more naturally and engagingly. Jim is the heart and soul of this musical, and Johnson was more than up to the task, with a strong grasp of the musical style, outstanding vocals and deep understanding of Jim’s stoic and proud nature. His rapport with Huck is evident, and some of the most memorable moments of the show were their duets. Huck began a little bit stiff and uncomfortable, but he too settled in and displayed all the charm and innocence we expect from his character, while gradually, in his own unceremonious way, questioning the moral inversion of slavery in pre-war America.

The supporting cast was vocally strong, expertly coached by musical director Steve Goers to handle music with an entirely different feel than the usual musical theatre fare. He competently arranged Roger Miller’s country score for a four piece orchestra. Standouts included Gina Santare as Mary Jane Wilkes and Jenny Mollet and Ciara Harris as slave women, all of whom had featured vocals that brought the house down. Kevin Chlapecka and Adam Zeph as the two con-men, the King and the Duke, added broad comic relief in bombastic fashion. I was somewhat less impressed by Derek Kastner as Huck’s father, who lacked Pap’s menace and presence, and Jackson Mattek as Tom Sawyer, who never quite seemed to believably capture his boyish charm and exuberance.

I am always excited to see how CCM manages the flexible and intimate space of the Cohen Family Theatre, and was particularly impressed by the scenic design of Katelyn Budke, which was both eye-catching and functional. A series of windows which opened up to a stone backdrop behind the stage helped create a more open feel and allowed for a number of satisfying lighting effects created by lighting designer CJ Mellides. Director Vince DeGeorge used the multiple layers of the stage, ladders and a fire pole to keep the blocking constantly interesting and energetic. My only concern with the technical aspects of the production was the volume of the actors, which despite microphones and the small space seemed inadequate, especially with the music behind them and the challenges of understanding the dialect. Jim’s powerful monologue about his daughter was unfortunately almost totally lost.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is by many considered the first true American novel and one of its finest. CCM’s Big River artfully displays this slice of our history and attentively captures Twain’s warmth, humor, and moral perspective. Tickets are usually sold out the Monday before for these small studio productions, but can often be obtained a walking up to the CCM box office an hour before show time and adding your name to a waitlist. The opportunity would be well worth it.