‘Big River’: A joyful ride down the Mississippi

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” – Mark Twain

That is how Mark Twain began his classic, “Huckleberry Finn.” It is a tale of freedom and integrity that took Twain seven years to complete, was published in 1885 and has never been out of print.

This is also how “Big River” begins. It keeps the original story intact and brings the characters to life, enriching them with words and music that – if possible – make what was considered the most important American novel of the 19th century even better. “Big River” opened on Broadway in 1985 and walked off with seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book.    

Blend this with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and writer William Hauptman and you have a delightful, grand musical that leaves the viewer warm and chuckling long after the curtain comes down. Add fine-tuned direction and choreography, a superb cast, a marvelous orchestra, precise sound and lighting and a raft that takes the audience down the Mississippi, and you’re in for an adventurous ride with Huck Finn and the runaway slave, Jim.

Alex Goley as Huck has just the right mix of imp, innocence and a simple sensitivity to beautifully underplay the part with loving authority. He is easy to watch and listen to as he carries the story to the audience with the advantage of being a believable, amiable fellow.

Jim is superbly portrayed by James Monroe Iglehart. (He just completed a three-year run on Broadway in the Tony Award winning “Memphis.”) His voice is rich and meaningful and he is a fine, controlled actor. This part could turn into a caricature but he carries it off with dignity and grace.

Gary S. Martinez as Pap Finn portrays the best, despicable sot possible. His “Guv’ment” number shows his talent and the genius of Miller’s words and humor.

Robert Kelly’s delicate direction, Kikau Alvaro’s delectable choreography and William Liberatore’s baton takes “Big River” exactly where it was intended to go.

This production has 17 songs that range from gospel, spiritual and folk, to country and blues. “Do You Wanna Go To Heaven,” “Muddy Water,” “How Blest We Are,” the touching “Free At Last” and the poignant “Worlds Apart” that Huck and Jim render are all a tribute to Miller’s talent and consciousness to the time and plot.

“Big River” is more than a play, it is an experience. It takes place just before the Civil War, when the south was struggling with abolitionists, and had to accept that slaves were going to be a thing of the past. The mentality of some made for ugly reactions, while others realized that they must embrace the reality of the situation. Twain recreated what the times were like and some of the ramifications.

Ernest Hemingway said it best when he stated, “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

By all means, do yourself a favor and go and see “Big River.” The trip down the Mississippi is an enjoyable and unforgettable ride.   

‘The Nutcracker’: A colorful splash of an old favorite

When Tchaikovsky composed “The Nutcracker” in 1892 to be a part of a double bill with an opera performed at the Marinisky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, he couldn’t have imagined how many renditions of the story the ballet would go through. Changes included the name of the heroin from Marie to Clara (originally Marie’s doll), back to Marie depending which company you are attending. It doesn’t matter. The story is delightful and became most popular in the United States in 1960 after George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet’s introduction, and continues to delight during the Christmas season.

San Jose Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” offers an interesting effort with splendid sets by Paul Kelly, glorious costumes by the late Theoni Aldrege and an inspired Symphony Silicon Valley Orchestra under the steady baton of music director George Daugherty.

A unique addition to the orchestra is the celesta, a piano-like instrument with a sound similar to the glockenspiel, but with a much softer and more subtle timber (thus the name celesta, which means heavenly in French). Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to use it in his production of “The Nutcracker.” The score is inspirational, familiar and loved.

Principal dancer Karen Gabay gave the piece fresh choreography in her first venture in this area and succeeded for the most part with her “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act, beautifully interpreted by her corps du ballet. Maria Jacobs as Maria and Ramon Moreno as the nutcracker/prince bring well-trained dance to their partnering.

The first act was a little confusing but entertaining, considering most of the audience was familiar with the plot. Gabay’s choreography never exceeded the ability of her dancers; a clever move since it created smooth transitions.

“The Nutcracker” is an enchanting ballet. Children and adults will enjoy the captivating charm and appeal of the magical story and superb music.

Where: Lucy Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through: Dec. 30
Tickets: $27- $77
Details: (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
Where: Center For the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose
Through: Dec. 23
Tickets: $30-$105
Details: (408) 288-2800 or visit: www.balletsj.org.

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