Theater Review: Big River

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Studio Tenn presents: Big River (Feb. 21 – March 3; Ages 8 and older)
The Franklin Theatre
419 Main St., Franklin
538-2075 • studiotenn.com
Show times: Thu – Fri 7 p.m., Sat 2 and 7 p.m., Sun 2 p.m.
Tickets: $47.50 – $57.50

The adventures of vagabond child Huckleberry Finn come to life on The Franklin Theatre stage during Studio Tenn’s current musical production, Big River. Based on Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this Broadway musical took seven Tony Awards in 1985, including Best Score — and no wonder when the likes of the great Roger Miller penned the music and lyrics. The musical follows Huck and slave friend, Jim, as they embark down the mighty Mississippi to flee certain fates.

In a daring move, Director Matt Logan cast a kid — 13-year-old Jackson Nance — in the title role. This is a HUGE role for even an adult to take on and Nance is no doubt talented for his young age, and has a tremendous singing voice that is clear throughout the show. Likewise, John-Mark McGaha as Jim has bold vocal delivery, and while Studio Tenn’s production of Big River is good, there’s something wrong with the chemistry between Huck and Jim as in it is non-existent. That’s problematic for a show based on friendship that crosses barriers in a day and age when black folks were slaves.

The production is well-sung for the most part with standout moments including, “River in the Rain,” Muddy Water” and “Arkansas.”

Other kids on stage include Jack Alcott as Tom Sawyer, Mary Marguerite Hall as Mary Jane Wilkes, and Will Perkins and Matthew Dyra as ensemble boys. Don Chaffer’s musical direction is superb and Logan’s set design and lighting is good; it serves its purposes although it’s a bit subdued for this particular show.

On a side note, if you take your kids, know that the “N-word” is used throughout the show, so you’ll want to explain ahead of time that Big River holds true to Twain’s book and the dialogue of that time period.

Studio Tenn’s Big River is an entertaining family show, but tighter direction and closer attention to the characters’ dynamics would make it truly outstanding, considering the reality of a messy, teenage kid and a runaway slave heading down the river.

Chad Young is the managing editor and arts/entertainment editor for this publication.

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