In Concert

There has never been a better Broadway marriage of story and storyteller – until Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, three decades later, anyway – than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and songsmith Roger Miller. Floating between aching country ballads, soulful slave spirituals, and the side-splitting novelty tunes that made Miller famous, Big River brought an American classic about century-old America into the 20th century, earning seven Tony Awards in the process. And now through October 15, Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, ferries Huck, Jim, and their story of friendship and freedom to today’s audiences, showing that the stories and the struggles of America haven’t changed all that much.

While Twain’s tale is titled for its teller – the author’s most famous creation – Huck Finn was the original Nick Carraway, in that he is best when playing narrator for the other characters and their quandaries. And in TATC’s production of Big River, James Romney’s Huck is just such a narrator. Romney’s work is fine – his voice is strong, his acting is as well, and he’s got boyish charm galore – but it’s when he allows the rest of the cast to shine that he’s at his best, supporting each of the people we meet along the Mississippi as they spin their yarns, share their pain, and make us chuckle.

The first people we meet are the orchestra, led by pianist and musical director, Bill Underwood. Part of the simple but gorgeous set, the group fits right into the rural riverside, playing guitars, mandolins, accordion, harmonica, and even the jaw harp. Their accompaniment throughout is just the right balance of polished and down home; they’re part of the set and part of the spectacle, bringing the surroundings to life without stealing the show.

Huck’s fellow townsfolk enter as the opening overture plays, each dancing and playing percussion – washboard, shakers, the tambourine. Liz Chidester’s stern Miss Watson is a favorite, a spinsterly hoot. And Kyle Quinlivan’s Tom Sawyer, who will reappear throughout, starts us off expecting a comical adventure, more puckish even than Huck as he leads the local lads in the energetic “We Are the Boys.”

Another member of Huck’s St. Petersburg is town drunkard and the boy’s old man, Pap Finn, played by Bret Tuomi. His swaggering, staggering rendition of the bluesy “Guv’ment” is the first real showstopper. Tuomi later retakes the stage as the King, a conman whose partner in crime, the Duke played by Jason Richards, struts and preens and malaprops his way into the townspeople’s pockets and the audience’s hearts, a highlight being a ludicrous Shakespearean soliloquy. Seeing grifters hoodwink the general populace for their own gain has never been so much fun – or, sadly, so timely.

But even as the cast entertains, the darkest side of humanity is always present. The ensemble cast playing slaves – slaves in Huck’s hometown, and those enslaved on down the river – give the show gravitas not just with their singing, but by their mere presence. Adhana Reid delivers a lovely hymn, “How Blest We Are,” while Camille Robinson provides a highlight in the reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine.” But early on, as Jim and Huck hear voices from the other bank sing the lament, “The Crossing,” Jim knows these are escaped slaves who’ve been recaptured simply from the sound of their voices. And because Jim tells us, we know this, too. And we hurt right along with him.

Blessed with a big, beautiful voice, and an even bigger and more beautiful presence, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, as Jim, is the heart of this production, just as Jim is the heart of the book and the musical. Whether cleaning a catfish or chained to a cabin, whether telling of his daughter’s scarlet fever or telling tall tales to Huck aboard their raft, we feel for and with and through Butler-Duplessis’ Jim. This culminates in his rendition of Roger Miller’s finest gospel tune – and perhaps the finest tune Miller ever wrote – “Free at Last.” Shackled there on center stage, Butler-Duplessis shows us the sorrow this man has seen and hints at the hope that freedom may bring.

But perhaps for this writer, the most powerful moment comes at the end of the first act. As Huck joins the shysters in plotting their latest scheme in “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” Jim returns to the show’s main theme, the yearning, churning “Muddy Water.” Jonathan Butler-Deplessis’ solo soars over his raftmates’ shenanigans, in a plea for freedom, for justice, for life. In 1800's Missouri or in modern times, there is injustice and there are those who stand against it. Yesterday and today, there is good and there is evil. And in that moment, I sure got the shivers as TATC’s Big River allows the good to rise above.

Big River is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN through October 15th. For more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com. A Wonderful Life: The Musical begins November 16th.

Published in Theatre in Review

These days – these days of fractured politics and fraudulent politicians and fake news, and all of the fear they’ve collectively caused our country – perhaps we could all use a little comfort food, be it literal or figurative. And for a couple hours on Sunday night at Ravinia, that’s what John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter dished out – American music that was comforting while still completely captivating.

American music, of course, is Ms. Carter’s birthright. By nature and by nurture, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash was meant to grace the stage, and oh boy, did she ever. The strains of her guitar and twang of her voice filling the night air, Carter welcomed the crowd as they filed to their seats. Regaling us with stories of a life lived among musical royalty (one yarn involved a late-1960's Kris Kristofferson in leather pants and a helicopter), Carlene gifted us with her own God-given talent. Setting down her guitar to sit down at the piano, she shared the personal loss of her mother and stepdaddy with the hymnal “Lonesome Valley.” Leading us north shore folks in an acapella “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” she winkingly assured us that our rendition was alright, even though we’re no Carter Family.

This professionalism continued as members of the headlining band took the stage, decked out in black suits and armed with hollow-body guitars, a violin, faux-distressed drumkit, and even an accordion. The music of a newer number, “Lawless Times” from 2014’s Plain Spoken, began. And then that familiar face and comforting form of John Mellencamp strolled out, Telecaster guitar strapped over black duds that would’ve made the afore-mentioned Mr. Cash proud, as confident and cocksure as he was decades ago.

The opener was a newer song, but the weathered voice, the still-handsome face, and the populist politics – sentiments both working-class and progressive? How vintage! How quaint! – were anything but. This was the guy – the legend, the hall-of-famer, the working man’s musician – the crowd had come to see. And their hero delivered.

After another more recent number, Mellencamp dove into his back catalogue with renditions of “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” off the once-ubiquitous Scarecrow, the crowd eager to leap to its feet and sing along.

After introducing himself and his band, Mellencamp traveled back in time even further with a modern blues take – just vocals, slide guitar, and upright bass – on Robert Johnson’s haunting “Stones in My Passway.”

Again returning to his own work, Mellencamp sang “Pop Singer,” which could just as easily critique today’s fleeting and narcissistic culture as the one nearly three decades ago, as could 1987’s “Check It Out.” The only updates these songs got were thanks to the mature and polished backing band Mellencamp brought and the weathered rasp that age has brought him.

The next song didn’t need the stellar backing musicians or their bevy of instruments to make it powerful. Clutching his acoustic guitar, today’s John Mellencamp told the tale of how a 24-year-old version of himself penned “Jack and Diane” while torn between dreams of songwriting stardom and the more worldly concerns 20-somethings have always had. And strumming said guitar, he allowed the crowd of equally aged folks to take the lead, literally, singing the lead vocal we all know…or at least thought we did. When the crowd skipped the second verse, instead plowing into that beloved chorus, Mellencamp corrected us before continuing. But that chorus of voices made “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” float through the summer air, sounding every bit the hymn or old standard it has become.

Carlene Carter then returned for a couple of tunes, including “My Soul’s Got Wings,” whose lyrics were once written by Woody Guthrie, only to be given the Mermaid Avenue treatment (given music and a proper recording) by Mellencamp on this year’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. A lovely overture by the band’s violinist and accordion player was played before the crowd again got the classics, in the form of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Crumblin’ Down.” When each of these was played, the audience leapt to its feet, especially going footloose for “Authority Song,” whose authoritative target most of them have become all these years later.

But that was not the point of the show. Who we were – and how that’s not so different than who we are now – was what mattered. And as we embraced John Mellencamp’s songs, singing with him, all together for one glorious night, he provided the comfort and familiarity that was underscored by the main set’s closer, “Pink Houses”: “Ain’t that America, somethin’ to see…”

For one night, we forgot about the world outside. It sure was somethin’ to see.

 

Published in In Concert

 

 

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