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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review

I see the same stars though my window
That you see through yours
But we're world apart,
Worlds apart

— In song, Huck Finn faces the reality that he and Jim, a runaway slave, have everything in common but freedom.

Black people care about their families just like white folks do— A surprised Huck on learning of Jim's sorrow at being forcibly separated from his wife and children.
Big River
Anthony Malchar as Huck and FaTye as Jim
As far as credentials go, the musical Big River is no piker. Based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an American classic by Mark Twain, and with songs by the popular country musician, Roger Miller, it won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical of 1985. (However, see caveat at end of review.) So what's not to like? Actually nothing if you're willing to settle for writer William Kauptman's sketchy perspective of this admittedly sprawling story, and Miller's score which is folksy, pleasant but not particularly memorable.

There's another credential important in the scheme of things — the overall perspective and professional hands that steer the show. That brings me to the limitations in the production of Big River which just opened at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, the popular dinner theater in Elmsford, New York. It is not; it turns out, a production of this well respected venue, but is being presented by the Family Theatre Company. A new endeavor headed by John J. Fanelli who directed this Big River, the company is focused on "bringing professional family shows to Westchester." On the basis of this production, that would seem as much about providing a showcase for local talent, especially the young, as it is about the selection of family oriented entertainments.

It's an ambitious production, well meaning and filled with upcoming performers, but it ultimately lacks the polish one has come to expect at this theater.

It was clear on opening night, with many local politicians in attendance, that this company is getting an impressive launching. The show was apparently picked not only for its family values, but to highlight Black History Month.

The evils of slavery are an important backdrop in this saga about life along the Mississippi River, though Twain's perspective was less about the immediate black experience than it was about filtering it through the eyes of a mischievous 12-year old boy on an adventurous trip.

Hauptman's book follows Twain's evolving scenario about Huckleberry's attempt to avoid the attempts by the Widow Douglas, to "civilize" him. Spurred on by the wild imagination of his friend Tom Sawyer (Todd Ritch), and frightened by the violent abuse of his alcoholic father, Pap (Tom Ammirato), Huck (Anthony Malchar) stages his own murder and runs away.

Teaming up with Jim (FaTye) a runaway slave, they board a small raft and head downstream. During their journey, Huck faces the realities of slavery and learns about the power of friendship. The story is episodic and filled with eccentric characters like the Duke and the King, two con men who join forces with Huck and Jim but later betray them.

The stop and start unfolding of the story doesn't lead to the buildup of much dramatic force though there are powerful moments, many of them supplied by young Malchar and Fatye, both exceptional actors and singers.

Fanelli has guided the huge cast well and his staging is as fluid as the story allows. Often one has the feeling he has been motivated by a desire to get as many actors as he can get on stage at one time.

All that said, there is no denying the energy and dedication of the huge cast — especially the younger performers. Well rehearsed, they execute complicated and lively choreography designed by Dorina Di Lullo and throw themselves into the action with gusto. Some of the older actors likewise throw themselves into the spotlight but without the necessary restraint that keeps comedy from becoming cornball.

Especially overwrought are Augie Abatecola as the King, Joey Sanzaro as the Duke and Ammirato's Fagin/Red Beard the Pirate scenery chewing. A lighter touch by all would have been preferable – Twain was a wit not a wrestler.

Among the pleasures of the production, in addition to the precision dance numbers, -are the vocal performances which shine under the musical supervision of Shelton Becton. Williams' score provides many moments for a chorus as well as for solos and duets and there is rarely a missed opportunity to hit the high note or an emotional nerve.

Highlights in the score include the religious revival sounding "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven" and "Waitin' for the Light to Shine," while "River in the Rain" and "World's Apart" are mellow and sentimental.

In the end, Big River is much like a pageant with music, trading as it does on historical color, Americana and the frontier spirit in all of us. And it calls for a cast as large as the horizon. Elmsford serves it up —along with a tasty dinner.

Caveat (as promised): While Big River won seven Tony Awards, it won them in one of the most dismal years for the Broadway musical in decades. The contenders in the Musical category were so weak, the Tony Award nominating committee simply eliminated the categories for Best Actress, Best Actor and Choreographer. There were so few candidates for the top honor that the committee was forced to name Grind "Leader of the Pack" and Quilters to compete against the good if not great Big River"which won in a breeze.

Editor's Note: For a complete song list see our previous review.

Big River
Music and lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by John J. Fanelli
Cast: Huckleberry Finn(Anthony Malchar), Jim (FaTye), Tom Sawyer (Todd Ritch)
King (Augie Abatecola), Duke (Joey Sanzaro), Pap ( Tom Ammirato) Widow Douglas (Chris Jamison), Miss Watson (Jill Twiss) Mary Jane Wilkes (Cali LaSpina), Mark Twain (Sam Sulton), Judge Thatcher (Tim Murray). Ensemble: singers, dancers and actors of the Family Theatre Company.
Choreographer: Dorina Di Lullo
Stage manager: Julia LaVerde
Costumes: DB Productions Costumes and Renee Purdy
Tap coach: Jimmy Tate
Lighting design: Bob D'Urso
Musical supervisor: Shelton Becton
Musicians Sue Anderson, Anastasia Victory, Ken Levinsky, Chris Burke, Ronald Raffio, Ken Ross.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes including a 30 minute intermission
A Family Theatre Company Production at Westchester Broadway Theatre, One Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, New York. (Exit 23 off the Saw Mill Parkway.). (914) 592-2222, or online at
Through February 26.
Performances: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 with dinner beginning at 6:15, Sundays at 1 p.m. with lunch at 11:30 and selected matinees (call the box office for performance schedule.)
Ticket prices include meal and show. Taxes, gratuities and bar beverages additional.
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the press performance, Friday, February 3.

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