(Editor's note: See also our Q&A with Village Theatre artistic director Steve Tomkins about the production and tips for parents.)
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of our country’s great novels. It’s also one of the most challenged books in the U.S., due to its anachronistic attitudes and language about race.
Adapted by William Hauptman from Twain’s book, the musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, currently playing at Issaquah’s Village Theatre, reflects the book's context and language.
But if parents take the time to prepare kids with information about the book’s history and context, the show’s fine performances, soaring bluegrass-infused score and truly beautiful musical and dance numbers make the production worth seeking out. It also makes a good starting point for conversations with kids about the origins of our country’s relation to race. (See resources listed below.)
As Huck and Jim, Randy Scholz and Rodney Hicks provide some of the show’s best moments. Their duets – “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain” and “Worlds Apart” – are gorgeous, Scholz’s light tenor blending beautifully with Hicks’ powerful voice.
Huck’s hulking father Pap (David Anthony Lewis), who appears to claim Huck after a year of absence, is hilarious in “Guv’ment,” a drunken musical screed against the “sorry sons of bitches” whom he thinks want to dictate his every move.
Another standout number is “The Crossing,” in which captured runaway black slaves lament their lot. The singing is terrific, and the moment is sobering.
As The Duke, Greg McCormick Allen (you may recognize him from Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of “Lyle the Crocodile”) is a rubber-faced charlatan who weaves lines from Shakespeare into a comical pastiche.
After a madcap series of misadventures, Huck does the right thing by Jim, overcoming his upbringing to acknowledge the former slave’s humanity, but along the way he – and his compadre Tom Sawyer – are often irritating, their childish preoccupation with adventure obliterating the gravity of Jim’s situation as a runaway. This obvious blindness is a clue to Twain’s feelings about the slave-owning South. Huck – charmingly portrayed by Scholz as an untameable rascal – is a sympathetic character in spite of his biases.
The show moves quickly despite its almost three hours of running time, and it’s absorbing enough that kids ages 12 and up shouldn’t have a problem sitting still for the production. The book retains Twain’s delightful wordplay and turns of phrase – it’s worth listening carefully to the dialogue and lyrics.
If you go . . .
Where and when: Big River plays at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah through Oct. 21, then at Everett Performing Arts Center Oct. 26-Nov. 18.
Tickets: To buy tickets, visit villagetheatre.org or call 425-392-2202 (Issaquah). Student rush tickets (30 minutes before curtain, with valid ID) are 50 percent off the single ticket price.
Resources and reading
Village Theatre's "production preview" provides a plot synopsis and some guidelines for parents deciding whether to take kids, including a note from the director on the decision to include original language from the book in the musical. (See also our Q&A with Village Theatre artistic director Steve Tomkins.)
Michael Chabon, writing in The Atlantic, on reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his kids
New York Times opinion piece: Why Bother Reading “Huckleberry Finn?”
Pro-Youth Pages: ‘Huckleberry Finn’s’ REAL Controversy
Kris Collingridge is an avid theater-goer and was formerly Out & About editor for ParentMap.