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'Big River' runs smooth and deep in Mesa

Opening night jitters have been around since the dawn of the Broadway musical, but Mesa Encore Theatre's (MET) production of Big River started changing that course before the cast was even in costume opening night. Director Tim Shawver, along with leads Devon Nickel (Huck Finn) and Marcus Terrell Smith (Jim), sat back to visit for a spell with Examiner before the lights dimmed at Mesa Arts Center, and the easy music started to flow.

Marcus Terrell Smith (Jim) and Devon Nickel (Huck)  --  Big River performs through April 19, 2014, at Mesa Arts Center
Marcus Terrell Smith (Jim) and Devon Nickel (Huck) -- Big River performs through April 19, 2014, at Mesa Arts Center
Sarah Rodgers/Mesa Encore Theatre
Terrell Marcus Smith (Jim) and Devon Nickel (Huck) in Big River at Mesa Arts Center
Becky Martinez/Mesa Encore Theatre

"It's storytelling while we're floating down the river, with pinnacle moments where Huck and Jim learn from each other," said Nickel of the show that runs through April 19, based on Mark Twain's beloved novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

According to Shawver, MET has taken a Broadway show "usually epic in design" and distilled it to the purity of performance and music rather than spectacle. Pure American genre tunes of gospel, jazz, sacred hymn and bluegrass glide in and out of the score, with music and lyrics by old-time honky-tonk recording icon, Roger Miller.

"Artistic patriotism," is how Shawver describes the show. "Through the filter of literature that put America on the artistic map, Big River uses the strictly American artform of musical theatre to showcase four types of indigenous music."

MET Artistic Director, and Musical Director for the show, Debra Jo Davey has gathered an unrivaled combo of Blue-ribbon musicians. With wooden barrelfuls of awards themselves, they do justice to Big River's backwoods call for fiddle, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, banjo, piano and more. The 1985 triple Tony winner for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score is in well-seasoned hands.

The true ties that bind Mesa's production however, rest squarely in the capable, relaxed crafts of Nickel and Smith as Huck and Jim. With a friendship that MET aptly notes "both defies convention and defines the American dream" as it grows, they navigate cast and crowd deftly through a novel submerged in themes of gigantic proportion with the simplicity of a raft and down-home adventure.

And be advised that still waters do in fact run deep. Just as the audience nestled into being provided equal parts light-hearted Tom-foolery and gently rippling songs, Smith let loose the full timbre of his voice when he joined Nickel's effortless lyrics during 'River in the Rain.' Jim soaks in the warm droplets and melts our cares in a gently blended harmony, his tone so soothing that its crime is the anticipation stirred in hopes Smith will solo again, soon.

"I haven't gotten to play such a vulnerable character before," said Smith, who indeed splays himself wide open as a dejected, often-chained runaway slave for the better part of the show.

To say the show is calm and lush is not to suggest strong, assured currents of energy aren't powering the cast around every plot turn. Evidenced by Tom Sawyer (Patrick Steward) leading his newly-proclaimed "gang" in a fist-pumping song and dance number, 'We Are the Boys,' the supporting cast is strong and steady.

Twice before the first act closes, the show's momentum surges with literal show-stopping cascades of talent. First, Pap Finn offers a delightful folk-ish number, complete with genuine washboard and consummate fiddle back up, in a lovably detestable portrayal by Andrew Lipman. As Huck's drunkard dad, he staggers and rails with booming baritone resentment against the 'Guv'ment' before succumbing to a moonshine-induced stupor.

Closing the act, Louis Farber and David Chorley are perfectly paired in voice and comedic delivery as the slippery, conniving King and simpering, dastardly Duke. The crowd, by the sounds of their whoops and hollers, could have left thoroughly entertained and happy right then, mid-story.

But to do so, would have left the most poignant show memories just around the bend unrealized. "There's such beautiful counter-play in the voicing of 'Worlds Apart,' Shawver opined about the defining ballad of Act II. "It speaks as emotionally as the lyrics do about Jim and Huck's friendship."

The touch of 'Mockingbird Hill' we hear Jim sing at the end of the number conjures images of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, two more critical slices of Americana's artistic pie. Plus, we've hoarded another serving of Smith's voice.

Said the usually impish Nickel with gravity of a young man and character who has come of age, "I love Jim. Not just as Huck, but as Devon."

With a leg tucked under himself sitting backwards on one of the seats in the house, he observed, "He makes you feel the kind of right that's true. Huck gets to a point where he's sure he's failed at life." Nickel continues explaining that then Huck suddenly flips on himself. He decides if freeing Jim means damnation, so be it.

"Alright then! I'll go to hell!" Nickel says quoting Huck. "I love that he makes the right decision and that I get to be the one portraying that from such a simple perspective. We get to see the growth in Huck and what he's evolved to."

Big River, for its 1,000+ performances on Broadway and successful revival that included a long run at Ford's Theatre in D.C. twenty years later, seems a sleepy little show with whom few are familiar. Be not lulled by the unassuming surface. Deep satisfaction and "cultural beauty," in Shawver's words, shimmer just beneath.

-Jennifer Haaland

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