Mark Twain’s classic takes a rousing ride along ‘Big River’

The rousing new production of “Big River” at TheatreWorks is a smooth-sailing evening of musical theater and classic American storytelling.

The 1985 Tony winner for best musical, adapted from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” serves up a toe-tapping score and engaging book by the lauded singer-songwriter Roger Miller and librettist William Hauptman.

The highlight and the heart of the show is the relationship between Huck and Jim.  

Alex Goley radiates pragmatic charm as the unflappable, adventure-loving Huck. His lithe and sprightly performance is an engaging barefoot run to the edge of “Aw, shucks!” without ever stepping into shtick.

A perfect counterpoint is delivered by James Monroe Iglehart as Jim, the slave running to freedom. Big and earnestly gruff, Jim is a man of honor and dignity, not so cowed by the societal norms of the time that he won’t tell his friend when he feels their friendship has been ill-treated.

Together, these fine actors with wonderfully contrasting voices deliver the two biggest musical numbers of the evening: the boisterously infectious “Muddy Water” and the poignant “River in the Rain.”

Also at the top of their game are Jackson Davis and Martin Rojas Dietrich as the Duke and the King.  First appearing as genially comic and bumbling con men, the characters devolve brilliantly to loathsome venality on the part of Dietrich and pathetic self-pity for Davis.

As Huck’s best friend, Scott Reardon puts a wonderfully comic spin on Tom Sawyer. You can tell he is ready to burst with exasperation when confronted by people who would rather just perform a task instead of performing the same task while making some wild — and probably dangerous — adventure out of it.

Gary S. Martinez dips a little too deeply into the accent pot during his overly scenery-chewing time as Pap Finn, but is hysterically spot-on in affect and accent as a river rube sucked in by the Duke’s con of tickets to see “The Royal Nonesuch.”

Talented ensemble members double up on many roles in the sprawling tale, with special notice earned by Matthew Thomas Provencal, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone and Alison Ewing.

Housed in the somewhat intimate Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, the epic tale loses none of its grandeur thanks to the versatile and inventive technical craft of Joe Ragey’s fluid sets and Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting design.

Director Robert Kelley keeps the almost three-hour show rolling at a brisk clip. He also eschews treacle, preciousness or anything overly reverential in his approach.

The result is an honest, occasionally thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable musical ride on the Mississippi.

REVIEW

Big River

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 30

Tickets: $23 to $73

Contact: (650) 463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org

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