Deseret News, Tuesday, June 17, 2003

'Big River' offers a taste of Twain

By Peter Thunell
For the Deseret Morning News

BIG RIVER, SCERA Shell amphitheater, Orem, through June 28 (801-225-2787 or Running time: 2 1/2 hours (one intermission).

Melvin Shambry, left, as Jim and Darick Pead as Huckleberry Finn in SCERA's production of "Big River."

Mark A. Philbrick
OREM — "Big River" has floated into Orem's SCERA Shell, and it's worth hopping on the raft and enjoying the ride in this musical adaptation of Mark Twain's classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

"Big River" chronicles the adventures of Huck Finn (Darick Pead) and his friend, the runaway slave Jim (Melvin Shambry), as they escape from their problems at home by floating down the Mississippi River.

As with life, there isn't much in the way of a large story arc with a lot of resolution at the end, but there are plenty of adventures for Huck and Jim along the way. Some of these include dodging those trying to capture Jim, picking up some smooth-talking shysters and getting caught up in their scams, helping a pretty young lady and rescuing Jim from slavery again.

Obviously, a good deal of the story and the singing come from Huck and Jim, and Pead and Shambry (the latter recruited all the way from Wyoming by director Jerry Elison) are clearly up to the task.

Huck and Jim have a challenging friendship, where the carefree Huck has to overcome his conflicted feelings of learned racism and love his friend, while Jim, who has the weight of the world on him, must learn to trust Huck. Pead and Shambry both do justice to their roles, conveying the complex bond formed between their characters.

Some of the best moments in "Big River" are the duets between Huck and Jim, such as "Muddy Water," "Worlds Apart" and especially "River in the Rain." Pead and Shambry's voices blend beautifully on each.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Zac Freeman has fun playing the ever-mischievous Tom Sawyer. Ashley Gardner as Mary Jane and Elisa Eklof as Alice's daughter both show off beautiful singing voices in "You Oughta Be Here With Me" and "How Blest We Are," respectively. Dane Allred and J. Scott Montgomery also are great playing the King and the Duke, the over-the-top con artists.

One strange thing with the production is the way the character of Mark Twain shows up on stage periodically to watch the proceedings, jots down some notes and walks off, like a mute narrator. Possibly it's to remind people who wrote the story. But whatever the reason, it's distracting.

It's also a shame that there were some microphone problems on opening weekend — something the SCERA Shell seems to have a little too often.

In all, however, this is one "Big River" worth jumping into and enjoying on a warm summer evening.

Peter Thunell is a free-lance writer living in Utah County.


© 2003 Deseret News Publishing Company

(This is a copy of the original article, which can be viewed here)