‘Big River’ a Highland hit.
By Sue Langenberg
Highland Community College opened musical “Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” this weekend to celebrate its Summerset 40.
At 40 years, the summerset tradition has seen decades of shows, actors, musicians, staff and all the hoopla that goes along with producing a quality theatre experience. Some were hits, others maybe so-so. There are always ups and downs in this fickle world of stage.
‘Big River’ is most definitely in the hit column for HCC. The best of the best in the area came together for what appears to be a milestone. Moreover, it was a cast that knows each other’s work and blends into perfect harmony about songs and action. Director Mark Jansen was keenly able to gather them under his marvelous instincts and take it away.
The original ‘Big River’ show was from the book by William Hauptman after the 1884 novel by Mark Twain. Music and lyrics ala bluegrass and country style with some vaudeville thrown in are by Roger Miller.
The show eases down the flow of the Mississippi River during the pre-Civil war era with humor and levity mixed with soulful yearning and darkened times in our history. Between the music and the dialogue, it is the bare bones truth amidst a good yarn.
As Huck Finn, student Andrew Dorsey was a perfect fit. At first glance, he might appear a regular enthusiast onstage. But once he begins to sing, dance and emote, he takes off like fire works and maintains his level of energy throughout a heavily demanding role.
Dorsey also blended well with Evert Williams as Jim, especially in songs “Muddy Water,” “River in The Rain” and “Worlds Apart.” Williams’ rich and mature vocal range reached well beyond the footlights with warmth and heartfelt depth. Dorsey’s scene with Dave Vrtol as Pap Finn throughout “Guv’ment,” was comedic and foreboding, adding to young Huck’s vagabond environment that included actions with a fiesty Tom Sawyer (Trent Walker).
Familiar Freeport soprano Jody Brubaker as Miss Watson lilted her marvelous vibratos as did daughter Elise as Mary Jane Wilkes with Samantha Woodall as Susan Wilkes and Haley Shores as Joanna Wilkes.
A genuine Freeport treasure, Quynnetta Sanders, is one of those voices that one could follow to the ends of the earth to hear. Her essence of every note is spellbinding that literally brings chills at every phrase. Her solo of “The Crossing” with the slaves was heart-stopping, as well as “Free At Last.” It is an enormous pleasure to appreciate such vocal royalty, the kind that was born to exude a true gift from above.
And, of course, there’s no way that Shawn Killingbeck could enter the stage without hysteria to follow. His work as The Duke played well with The King by Andrew Reid as they scammed their way up and down the river. The rest of the cast, no less important, was equally effective in this show.
Music director/conductor Allen Redford staffed his pit with horns, brass, clarinet, piano and violin with some vintage highlights of harmonica, banjo and guitar; all quite appropriate for the era. Choreographer Julie Smith harnessed the action with good fist punching and boot stomping moves as was Linda Adams-Foat with her longtime expertise as costume designer.
Set designer Elwyn Webb was truly in his element with all the right scrims, moving parts and levels of background that all ran seamlessly (almost) with many scene changes.
Must-see “Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” July 11, 12, 13 evenings at 7:30 and a 2 p.m. matinee on the 14th at Ferguson Fine Arts Theatre of Highland Community College, 2998 W. Pearl City Road in Freeport. Contact the box office during the week 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 815-599-3718 or BoxOffice@highland.edu.