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July 18, 2010

'Big River' is wondrously staged -- and performed

Combine two of the wittiest American artists and you make entertainment magic.

COLUMBIA — Combine two of the wittiest American artists and you make entertainment magic.

With a story by Mark Twain and music by country novelty song-writer Roger Miller ("King of the Road"), the musical "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a funny, joyful and moving account of a boy and a slave's escape down the Mississippi River in the mid-1800s.

Masterfully directed by Dennis Jones, Sierra Repertory Theatre's production at the Fallon House conveys the excitement of the dramatic journey in this great American classic. Using only a small stage, Jones manages to show rafts floating down the river, the rolling countryside and city skylines.

The production deservedly got an enthusiastic standing ovation after Friday night's opening performance.

Winner of the 1985 Tony Award for best musical, William Hauptman's adaptation sticks closely to the book and includes many of Twain's lines. Miller's songs, which include gospel, country and bluegrass, are a pleasure for their authenticity and spirit. They're unlike anything you usually find on Broadway and are closer to something you would hear on a country oldies radio station.

Wes Urish, who stars as Huckleberry Finn, looks about 10 years older than 13, the age of the character in the book, but it's not bothersome because he has so much vitality. He is mischievous, rambunctious and achingly sweet all at the same time.

Joshua James, who looks about the same age, is equally appealing as Tom Sawyer, Huck's trouble-making best friend. James doubles as choreographer, coming up with wild country dancing for the young men to do in the standout number "The Boys."

Keith Patrick McCoy shows off a powerful voice as Jim, the slave desperate to make it to Ohio so he can make money to buy back his wife and children. His rendition of "Free at Last" gives you goosebumps.

Mark Chambers is hilarious as Pap Finn, Huck's drunken and no-good father. He brings the house down with his laugh-out-loud version of "Guv'ment," a rant against the government.

John C. Brown and Ty Smith spin comic gold with their portrayals of the Duke and the King, two con artists who join with Huck and Jim. One of their best scenes is when the pair performs their "Nonesuch" sideshow to swindle villagers out of their cash. Smith's costume, provided by designer Clinton O'Dell, has to be seen to be believed.

There's no room for an orchestra, so the musical accompaniment comes from a recording. The sound system always works and keeps a good balance between singers and the instruments.

"Big River" is so entertaining it's a wonder it isn't staged more frequently. While other musicals, such as "Fiddler on the Roof," seem to be performed almost annually around here, this show hasn't been presented in the region in more than 10 years. Thank you, Sierra Rep for rediscovering this gem.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at or 578-2313.

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