It’s the Thought That Counts in NVA’s Adorable ‘Big River’

Mark Twain, the American author and humorist who predicted he’d go out with Halley’s Comet (he died the day after it swung by these parts in 1910), might rightly be called the poor man’s William Shakespeare. After all, Bill put a lot of stock in the movement of the stars too –- besides, Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from 1884, features lots of Shakespearean devices, like mistaken identities, hidden treasure, forced confinement, the vicissitudes of the law, the open road and the aspirations of the runaways who tread it.

Mark’s characters are a skosh rougher around the edges, and his language is maybe a little coarser, probably a byproduct of his general impatience with the situations modern humanity creates for itself. In the right hands, the Finn novel makes an eminently stageworthy treatment of those foibles and the life lessons they reap. By way of illustration, Carlsbad’s New Village Arts has called on an ideal group. Its current Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a rambunctious and downright adorable entry, even as the venue itself imposes a big restriction of its own.

Huckleberry Finn (Reed Lievers, foreground) is fit to be tied, as he's had his fill of his hometown's provincial attitude. Photos by Shaun  Hagen.

Huckleberry Finn (Reed Lievers, foreground) is fit to be tied, as he’s had his fill of his hometown’s provincial attitude. Photos by Shaun Hagen.

The give and take in this 1985 Tony Award-winning script (it had its premiere mount at La Jolla Playhouse under former artistic director Des McAnuff) is positively topnotch, with librettist William Hauptman and late composer Roger Miller making way for each other’s craft like the relay racers they are. Twain’s story is the ultimate beneficiary –- his idealistic young Huck and beleaguered black runaway slave Jim build an unlikely and unbreakable friendship in their eastward travels by raft from Twain’s native Missouri, even as drunkenness, abuse, greed and wrongheaded townsfolk threaten to “sivilize” Huck and further victimize Jim, who’s only trying to earn enough money to buy back his wife and kids.

The men even overrun their destination a time or two, the rivers beckoning their epiphanies in a beautiful story of “considerable trouble and considerable joy.” Indeed, the piece is as big as the waters the men traverse –- and that’s precisely what brings the experience up ever so slightly short.

New Village Arts is a Carlsbad destination, having grown precipitously once it moved to its very nice venue (which includes an art gallery and studios) in 2007. Even so, there’s only so much space to go around in the performance area and its single story of about 100 seats. Big River is bustin’ out all over the place amid director Colleen Kollar Smith’s sense of fun and youthful abandon –- and often enough, the ratio of space to creation is well out of whack. Big production numbers like “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven” and “How Blest We Are” seem swollen amid the smallish setting; Jim and Huck’s touching “Worlds Apart” reads almost detachedly amid the lack of extras, for whom there’s precious little room.

Think Dances with Wolves on a 32-inch screen. You get the idea.

Huck (Reed Lievers, left) and Jim (Bryan Barbarin) fuel one another's capacity for friendship and the transcendence of earthly means to it.

Huck (Reed Lievers, left) and Jim (Bryan Barbarin) fuel one another’s capacity for friendship and the transcendence of earthly means to it.

But y’plays the hand ye’r dealts, which is to say there’s much more to this piece than its four walls. Escondido high schooler Reed Lievers matches Huck’s spunk and temerity word for word, his home-cooked smile rivaling that of Zackary Scot Wolfe’s Tom Sawyer (Wolfe is also a total riot as the Young Fool in the wacky treatise “Arkansas”). Bryan Barbarin’s Jim is an open sore of a man, yet Barbarin fuels Jim’s indefinable sense of hope, the cornerstone of which is Huck himself.

The husband-and-wife team of Manny and Melissa Fernandes exude the hucksterism their King and Duchess live for, while Natasha Partnoy’s spirited Mary Jane colors some major subtext almost singlehandedly. Everybody else is just fine in collaboration with the show’s six barnstorming musicians, who kill the bluegrass and gospel-tinged tunes geared to the show’s intent by music director Jon Lorenz.

A giant wooden moon defines Christopher Scott Murillo’s rustic set; the rest of the technical effort evolves accordingly (like Smith, many on the technical and creative staff are Lamb’s Players Theatre veterans; how bad can they be?).

In 2005, I was privileged to see this entry as part of a national tour mounted by North Hollywood’s outstanding Deaf West Theatre and New York’s renowned Roundabout Theatre Company; it was staged at the sprawling Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. and was an absolute landmark in the annals of entertainment statewide. As much as anything, the venue fueled the show’s colossal success amid the half-million musicians and choristers and their hootin’ and hollerin’; the companies (like the NVA troupe) were beside themselves with the joy of performance, and the breadth of their effort touched every patron in the theater’s 1,600 seats.

But even as the NVA space is by rights far too small for this show, you can’t knock these people for trying. In fact, they succeed very handsomely amid the restriction. That TV may be only 32 inches wide, but the cast’s aliveness makes every pixel count.

This review is based on the matinee performance of April 10. Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn runs through May 15 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $44-$47., 760-433-3245.


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New Village Arts Theatre
2787 State St, Carlsbad CA 92008 USA Work Phone: 760.433.3245 Website: New Village Arts Theatre website
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