REVIEW: Big River


I promise I’m not a Communist or a traitor but I’ve never really enjoyed the work of Mark Twain.  I find his writing pedantic, not that clever, and hard to read.  And the stories of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer – and the unfortunately named “Nigger Jim” – bore me.

So, you’d think I’d have a hard time with BIG RIVER, the Roger Miller musical based on the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, right?

Not CCM’s production, at least.

To be fair, on opening night there were moments were the overly wordy dialogue was hard to hear and moments were the pacing lagged a little.  But overall, Vince DeGeorge’s staging of this piece of Americana is masterful.  (The choreography by Patti James brought a smile to my face, too).

DeGeorge has an eye for taking the space he’s given – usually the black box Studio Theatre – and making the most of it with the use of various items and interesting blocking choices.  There’s some subtle things, too, that demonstrate his brilliance that I’ll let you discover when you see the show.

Because you should go see the show.

Why there were empty seats at a CCM production – that costs nothing to see; yes it’s free – is mind-boggling.  Lineup early and sign up for the waitlist.   You’ll likely be able to snag a seat.

You won’t be disappointed.

Here are some other thoughts:

  • Karl Amundsen’s “Huck Finn” anchors this show with poise, confidence, and commitment to character.  He’s a lot of fun to watch and has a tough job to do.  He nails it.
  • Phillip Johnson’s “Jim” is serious, grounded, and gives the show gravitas.  And his rich baritone was a nice surprise, too.
  • There’s something real and authentic about Hannah Kornfeld’s (“Miss Watson,” “Sally Phelps”) performance, no matter what character she plays.  I’m a fan.
  • Steve Goers and band sound amazing.  I love to hear a piano wail.
  • I like Zach Erhardt’s (“Tom Sawyer”) energy.  A lot.
  • The ensemble members, especially Tyler Sodoma, Kyle Pollack, EJ Dohring, and Derek Kastner, have some great moments and livened up the show.
  • Speaking of livening things up, Adam Zeph (“The Duke”) and Kevin Chlapecka (“The King”), are a welcome boost in Act One.  Their rendition of “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” is a highlight and Zeph especially made me laugh out loud.
  • Can Jenny Mollet and Ciara Harris sing or what?
  • Gina Santere may be the most sincere actress on and off stage that I’ve ever come across.  Her “Mary Jane” was pitch perfect – and her vocal performance is simple yet awe-inspiring.
  • The lighting design by CJ Mellides is really quite lovely; his work lights up Katelyn Budke’s fantastic set with style.  The tech for this show – as usual at CCM – is stellar.

I really could just go on and on about BIG RIVER – but I’d rather you go find out for yourself how good it is.  It runs through the weekend and its worth the risk of waitlisting, I promise.

BIG RIVER runs through Saturday night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  More information can be found here.