Although the deluge of rain on Saturday night may well have caused a rushing river down Country Club Road, inside PlayMakers there is a grand Big River. Despite a clunky start with some questionable notes and awkward timing, the performers soon cast off opening-night jitters and had us all floating on that little raft down the mighty Mississippi for a night of adventure and song.
Big River is, indeed, a big musical. An adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with music by Roger Miller and the book by William Hauptman, it's a timeless story of plan and chance, life and death, black and white. Huck, played energetically by the adorable Jason Edward Cook, and the runaway slave, Jim, played with great baritone presence by David Aron Damane, start on this adventure down the Mississippi out of necessity—each must escape his past to preserve his future. Jim is going north to earn enough money to buy his wife and two children out of slavery, while Huck faked his own death to escape from his lethally drunk dad. Together, they set out on the river.
Things could get pretty boring at this point—two runaways on a raft sing some songs, learn more about each other, sing some more songs, paddle a bit more, sing in the rain, drift again—if not for the wonderful antics of Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Scott Ripley as the King and the Duke. Oddly enough, it's through Huck's new heroes that he sees the dark side of man, faces down his own fear of being a "dirty abolitionist" and embraces his new role as a human being with a guiltless future.
This is PlayMakers' first musical in some time, and Joseph Haj directs a very talented ensemble, but for me, what moves this show is the music. The soaring gospel and toe-tapping honky-tonk are in the hands of the legendary Red Clay Ramblers, who collaborated with Roger Miller while creating the score for Big River at La Jolla Playhouse in 1984. Musical director Jack Herrick has received several standout performances from the cast, including "River in the Rain," "Muddy Waters," "Arkansas" and "You Oughta Be Here With Me."
If Big River exemplifies how PlayMakers can rise to the challenge of ambitious musical productions, I hope many more float our way. Then I rowed my car home.