FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Since 2009 Studio Tenn has taken Middle Tennessee theatergoers on a remarkable ride. That enjoyable journey continues with a buoyant Big River.
Artistic Director Matt Logan has creatively steered the Tony Award-winning 1985 Roger Miller/William Hauptman musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” away from any rocky theatrical shoals, trimming the sails where Hauptman’s billowed book is concerned while maintaining the essence of Twain’s story and Miller’s folk-filled score.
Perhaps the his best decision, though, was to cast someone around Huck’s age instead of using an adult actor in the lead role. Thirteen-year-old Jackson Nance makes his theater debut in the part, and he’s got the voice and talent necessary for a long career on the boards.
Though he’s a novice actor it’s clear he was born to perform – his sweet-natured, sure-focused portrayal is one that many actors his senior in years couldn’t pull off. He delivers songs, particularly the signature “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” and the declaratory “I, Huckleberry, Me,” with a strong, clear voice and an appropriate touch of Country twang. And he’s got the God-given gift of presence. I bet we’ll hear and see much more from the captivating Nance in years to come. (It’s also worth noting that he plays guitar well, too.)
John-Mark McGaha plays Huck’s friend, the runaway slave Jim. His powerful wide-ranging singing voice is such a beautiful instrument – anyone who saw him in Studio Tenn’s production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe knows what I mean – and it serves such numbers as “River in the Rain,” “Worlds Apart” and the heart-rending “Free At Last” well. He also conveys Jim’s straightforward integrity in his characterization, crafting a performance that’s water-tight.
Geoff Davin – who delivered an incredible Frank-N-Furter in Boiler Room Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show – and Will Sevier are the comedic scoundrels King and Duke, scoring more than one memorable moment topped with their energetic take on “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.” Davin also makes the most of Pap Finn’s exasperation with “Guv’ment.”
It should be noted that Nance isn’t the only youngster who shines in this show – Mary Marguerite Hall (a very charming Brigitta in Studio Tenn’s The Sound of Music) as girl-who-got-away Mary Jane Wilkes is very impressive, particularly in her lovely rendition of “You Oughta Be Here with Me” accompanied by the considerable talents of Carrie Tillis and Marguerite Lowell. Lowell (in another role) is a high-pitched, foghorn-of-a-voice hoot as the Widow Douglas. And gifted young man Jack Alcott makes a sure-fire Tom Sawyer.
Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Piper Jones and Tamiko Robinson add their ample talents to the ensemble as well. Whitcomb-Oliva’s soul-searing version of “The Crossing” is one of this production’s shining moments. And so is Ross Bridgeman’s Young Fool (Bridgeman like most of his cohorts plays more than one role) when he belts out “Arkansas.”
The production’s folksy atmosphere is established before the show by a five-piece “jug band” comprised of Billy Brimblecorn, Jr., Don Chaffer, Greg LaFollette, Jared Manzo and Caitlin Nicol-Thomas that also fills out the cast while providing musical accompaniment. Their pre-show rendition of “I Saw the Light” is one terrific example of the invaluable contribution they make to this event.
Emily Tello Speck is one of my favorite choreographers ever. Why? In this show and others before it she has emphasized character-driven dance that makes rehearsed numbers look like natural, spontaneous movement in performance. You’d think that would be the essential goal for all choreographers, but I’ve seen many fail to achieve that mark over the years.
Logan’s work as a designer (costumes and – along with Technical Director Mitch White – set) is once again the equal of his outstanding efforts as director. His outfits convey the period and personalities of Big River (kudos also for Sondra Nottingham’s wigs and makeup given the multiple parts played by most of the cast); the wood-and-rope dominated set has a large planked playing space that among other features hydraulically transforms into Jim and Huck’s raft. Add Stephen Moss’ finesse with atmospheric lighting and this Big River keeps rolling along.
Studio Tenn Theatre Company presents Big River through March 3 at The Franklin Theatre (419 Main St.). Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($47.50-$57.50) and more information are available at www.studiotenn.com.
*Photos by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.