I’ve never been a big fan of country music, personally. As a kid, though, I could sing Tom T. Hall’s “Sneaky Snake” start to finish, and I loved the quirky songs from Disney’s Robin Hood (who can forget “Oo-De-Lally, Oo-De-Lally, golly what a day”?). I was also surprised when, as an adult, I heard the music from Big River, written by the composer of the Robin Hood songs, Roger Miller. The silly stuff was great, but the emotional resonance of the ballads was like a punch in the gut. It was country music alright (I could even see today’s country artists covering some of the songs), but it was also pure Broadway as well. The lyrics got you inside the characters’ heads, and the music transported you to the Mighty Mississip’. Good stuff, all around.
Casa Manana opened its 55th season Friday night with Big River, which is a musical retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The production has a Ft. Worth pedigree, with Greater Tuna’s Jaston Williams and Casa favorites David Coffee and Julie Johnson among the cast. And though he was raised in Oklahoma, Roger Miller himself was born in Ft. Worth. Director Eric Woodall has put together some of D/FW’s best talent, and it pays off in every single musical moment of the show. This Big River sounds beautiful (Music Director/Conductor W. Brent Sawyer and his superb orchestra are also largely responsible for this), even if some of the show’s book scenes drag a little in spots.
Woodall and scenic designer Colt Frank have concocted a clever concept for the production, book-ending the show (pun intended) with wordless scenes in a public library. Mack Shirilla’s Huck is introduced as a disaffected teenager who likes to prop his feet up on the table, and Alvin Crawford’s Jim is first seen as a librarian who hands Twain’s book to the kid, showing him there’s more to experience in life than what’s on his iPod. The back wall of the set is floor-to-ceiling books (actual books!) borrowed from Ft. Worth’s Friends of the Library. It’s a nice touch, but it limits the production later on, when the magic of the story is kept a little at bay by the enclosed feeling of the library setting. You’re never allowed to feel the vast expanse of the Mississippi River or the solitude of Huck and Jim floating towards their next adventure. I wanted that wall of books to slip away during the emotional high-point of the show, “Muddy Water”, so we could fully experience the night sky and darkness that echoes Jim’s journey to freedom. That bit of an emotional disconnect keeps this Big River from perfection.
The cast, however, is pretty much perfect. From “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven” (sung by Julie Johnson and Cheryl Allison as the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, respectively) to Crawford’s moving “Free At Last”, Casa’s Big River is sung exactly the way a long-time fan would want it. The gospel flavors of Sheran Keyton’s “The Crossing” and Simone Gundy’s “How Blest We Are” grab you by the soul. The program didn’t specify who the back-up singers were on Alison Hodgson’s “You Oughta Be Here With Me”, but all three ladies blended seamlessly and made one of my favorite songs in the show the highlight it should be. Shirilla and Crawford sound wonderful every time they sing, but one has to wonder if there really wasn’t local talent who could have played the roles just as well.
Special mention has to go to the team of Coffee and Williams, who make you love and hate the King and Duke every bit as much as their depictions in Twain’s source material. I swear Williams’ hilarious Act Two monologue was an amalgam of every citizen of Tuna, Texas he’s ever played. And just wait until you see The Royal Nonesuch.
If you’ve never heard Big River live, this is a production you should see (and hurry, it only runs through this weekend!). If you’re a long-time fan like me, sit back and enjoy these songs sung as well as you could ever hope to hear them.
Big River runs through this Sunday, September 29th, at Casa Manana, 3101 West Lancaster Avenue, Fort Worth, TX 76107. Tickets are available by calling 817-332-2272 or at www.casamanana.org.