Take a Trip Down the Mississippi with CCM’s “Big River”

Review by Teddy Gumbleton of Big RiverCCM Musical Theatre

Karl Amundson and Phillip Johnson in "Big River"
Karl Amundson and Phillip Johnson in “Big River”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is widely regarded as one of the great American novels. Published in 1885, the book has become an essential read and has received numerous adaptions, including a musical, Big River, which is the first show of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music’s Studio Series.

For those who have somehow managed to avoid Twain’s seminal classic and all its adaptions, Big River tells the story of Huckleberry Finn and runaway slave Jim as they travel on a raft down the Mississippi River and the people and situations they encounter. Throughout their adventures, Huck and Jim develop a close friendship and respect for one another, despite Huck’s initial hesitance to help a runaway slave.

As an adaptation, Big River remains faithful to Twain’s original work, highlighting the major themes and style of the prose. Composer Roger Miller’s bluegrass and gospel infused score enhances the character’s southern vernacular and the book, written by William Hauptman, does an effective job distilling the story and, at times, even utilizes direct passages from the novel.

In the title role, Karl Amundson brought to life Huck’s vigor and energy. He was also quite compelling in expressing Huck’s conflicting feelings about being ‘civilized’. And in the role of Jim, Phillip Johnson provided the necessary stoic ballast to contrast Huck’s eager, dim, nature. As the show progressed, Amundson and Johnson beautifully developed Huck and Jim’s friendship and provided the heart of show.

Other standouts from the cast include Gina Santare as Mary Jane Wilkes, a girl Huck and Jim help when two con-men try to swindle her family, and Jenny Mollet, a female slave who Huck and Jim encounter after she has been captured when trying to escape. Santare exuded a lovely quiet strength and Mollet was perhaps both the vocal and emotional highlight of the show with her exquisitely rendered hymn, “Crossing”. Unfortunately, most of the remaining cast resorted to broad caricature instead of specific characterizations, which hindered the impact of the show.

Big River was performed in Cohen Family Studio Theatre, an unusual oval shaped-space, with a balcony that wraps around the entire theatre and arched doors along the back wall. Director Vince DeGeorge’s staging made great use of space, utilizing the levels and archways to create many dynamic moments. The choreography by Patti James was well-executed by the cast but its slick, polished style often felt at odds with the scrappy, rough-and-tumble tone of the story.

Katelyn Budke’s set of a raked wooden floor and two ladders was elegant in its simplicity. It was the ideally canvas for the variety of locations to which Huck and Jim travel and it fit seamlessly within the Cohen Studio Theatre. The excellent lighting, designed by CJ Mellides, worked beautifully in tandem with Budke’s sets, helping to transform the space.

Big River runs through October 10th.