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September 21, 2012 Comments Off on Reviews: The 19th Century Comes Alive, For Better And Worse, In Two Musicals Views: 1209 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Reviews: The 19th Century Comes Alive, For Better And Worse, In Two Musicals

Randy Scholz stars as Huck Finn in Village Theatre’s “Big River”
Photo: Village Theatre

Review: “Big River” based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Music & Lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Directed by Steve Tomkins. Music Direction by Tim Symons. Choreography by Daniel Cruz. With Randy Scholz, Rodney Hicks, Greg McCormick Allen, Richard Gray, David Anthony Lewis, Jayne Muirhead, Cheryl Massey Peters, John David Scott and John Patrick Lowrie as Mark Twain. Now through October 21, 2012 Village Theatre in Issaquah and October 26-November 18, 2012 at Everett Performing Arts Center.

It’s been a very historical week in Seattle Theater Land this week with two musical productions opening that both examine 19th Century American History. True, one work is based on an iconic piece of literary fiction, and the other is a colorfully broad and inaccurate retelling of the life of the 7th President of the United States with an Emo rock score, but both musicals examine some important historical and cultural moments in our nation’s past and even touch on how they relate to our present. One show is a big budget, glossy production with Equity actors, and the other is from a small company with some major up and coming young actors. Both shows have had very successful productions elsewhere, and both were Tony Award nominated with one winning the prize. Sadly, one of these locally produced productions is quite successful and the other…well, the other is not.

Guess which one we are starting with?!?!

The Village Theatre in Issaquah is well known for their lavish productions of major musicals (and the occasional play) though they do have a tendency to shy away from anything too controversial or edgy. After all, they are a suburban company with a subscriber base that skews older and more conservative…those more sedate audiences tend to favor the tried and true and get nervous if things stray too far away from the land of Rodgers & Hammerstein or Neil Simon.

But, the Village has loosened up in recent years, and that could be partly due to the fact that those aging subscribers are now more from the Boomer Generation and not the preceding Greatest Generation and they’re a bit more comfortable with the nitty and the gritty. In the last year, the Village has staged “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring a rock n’ roll Jesus; the male strippers of “The Full Monty”; and the naughty Mel Brooks’ schtick of “The Producers”.

And, now the Village has wandered into the dark and turbulent waters of “Big River” the 1985 Tony Award winning hit musical based on Mark Twain’s beloved but equally controversial novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and featuring the music of country western singer, Roger Miller. For many, “Huck Finn” is just a kid’s adventure novel relating the further exploits of Tom Sawyer’s best friend and his adventures traveling down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim. But, for others, “Huck Finn” is a darkly complex work that may or may not explore the depths of racism in 19th Century America and the devastating effects of slavery on African-Americans and our culture as a whole.  For some, it is an inherently racist work…largely due to the presence of “THAT WORD”.

“Nigger”.

Yep. I didn’t sugar coat it…no use of “The N Word”. And, like the original source material, the musical doesn’t shy away from it either and it’s a bit shocking to hear that word come out of the mouths of so many well known local actors on stage at The Village. It wasn’t audible, but I think the audience gasped a bit the first few times it happens, and it happens quite a lot in “Big River”. It’s shocking, and it should be, but that’s the point of the story being told in “Big River” (and, in my opinion, the point Mark Twain was making as well). Slavery IS shocking and horrifying and the subjectification of African Americans as non-humans is even more repugnant. The real story of “Huck Finn” is the story of Huck himself, learning a valuable lesson as he develops a relationship with Jim, the runaway slave. The “funny” bits of the story are entertaining, but they are always overshadowed by the fact that the majority of white characters on stage are overtly racist and many actually the owners of slaves. You laugh and like the rascally conmen “The Duke” and “The Prince” until they start plotting on how they’re going to sell the “nigger Jim” down river to fund further exploits. Again, you could feel the audience’s attitude towards those characters, who are both played by well-loved actors, Greg McCormick Allen and Richard Gray, noticeably chill. At first, they adored seeing these funny characters being expertly played by actors they like and admire, but the moment those WORDS started coming out of their mouths, that went away. Again, that’s one of the points of the work; racism and slavery are insidious and sugar coating them with comedy and pleasantries doesn’t make them go away.

William Hauptman’s book and Roger Miller’s songs do a great job of capturing the richness of those characters and those moments in Twain’s work, no small feat in trimming down a big novel into two and a half hours. And, the musical is much like the original in the fact that it does veer considerably in tone throughout. There are times when the work is pure boys adventure tale or bawdy variety show comedy but it always returns to the dark, mysterious depths of the River and that raft carrying Huck and Jim into the terrifying unknown of a dark and hostile night. And, to be honest, that’s the strength of “Big River”…the scenes with the most power are the scenes between the two on their journey, and the scenes directly involving the African American characters. Those scenes, and the powerful songs sung in those scenes, are the main reason to see “Big River”.

And, it’s all guided by the sure direction of Steve Tomkins who manages those difficult segues from low comedy to heart breaking drama with great assurance. Both Daniel Cruz’s time appropriate choreography and Tim Symons stellar work as the musical director are major assets and as usual, the Village has a crack design team: Scott Fyfe (Sets), Melanie Burgess (Costumes), Douglas Decker (Wigs), Tom Sturge (Lights), Monique Walker (Props) and Brent Warwick (Sound) doing exemplary work on creating the world of the antebellum south. It’s a top notch production with superb values and execution.

The actors are uniformly terrific as well, with strong supporting work from the aforementioned Mr. Allen and Mr. Gray as “Duke” and “Prince” respectively, as well as David Anthony Lewis as Huck’s rotten scoundrel of a father, “Pap”. But, the heart of the show belongs to the actors playing Huck and Jim, and both Randy Scholz and Rodney Hicks are excellent in creating rich and vibrant characters that resonate with the audience. The pair’s musical numbers on the raft, “Muddy Water” and “River in The Rain” along with the the spiritual “The Crossing” sung by a boatload of slaves being sold down river, serve as the  emotional core  of the show . “Big River” is not just the story of Huckleberry Finn; it’s a story ABOUT America and the vast, deep, currents that both separate and unite us all. It’s the reason why this is a major piece of American literature and a work that will endure. “Big River” doesn’t improve on the original, but it’s a moving and well written adaptation that allows the work to reach new audiences. The Village’s excellent production guarantees that those audiences will make the effort to make that journey.

Meg McLynn and Kody Bringman in ArtsWest’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”
Photo: ArtsWest

Review: “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”. Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman. Book by Alex Timbers. Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Zinovitch. Musical Direction by Kimberly Dare. With Kody Bringman, Meg McLynn, Jeff Orton, Mandy Price, Robert Scherzer. Now through October 20, 2012 at ArtsWest.

Meanwhile, over in West Seattle there’s a journey you might not want to take…Yes, we’ve come to the Sad Clown Portion of this post and Mr. Happy Face Critic is now being replaced by Mr. Grumpy Faced “I’ve Got a Sick Fog Induced Headache” Critic. ArtsWest current production of the cult musical hit, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” just opened featuring a very youthful cast enacting the life of President Andrew Jackson while singing dreadful Emo Rock songs and it’s a sad night of theater for all those involved.

But, a little backstory. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” emerged as a critic’s darling a few years back, the brainchild of a brash young theater company, Les Freres Corbusier and specifically the work of music writer Michael Friedman and book writer Alex Timbers. It played the theater festival circuit before winding up off-Broadway in a very successful production followed by a not so successful transfer to Broadway where it snagged some Tony nominations. “Bloody” is a revisionist look at our complicated 7th President and his rise to power which included a significant amount of slaughtering of Native Americans and their removal from “American” land to bleak reservations. The premise of the show is that Jackson, a Westerner from “Outside the Washington Beltway” was our first Rock n’ Roll president, ergo the emo rock songs and MTV posturing inherent in the show complete with groupies, modern slang and political commentary. It was apparently a lot of well received fun, by many, in its original productions.

When I heard earlier this year that ArtsWest, the well liked neighborhood theater in West Seattle had snagged the rights to produce “Bloody” in its Seattle premiere, it gave me pause. “Bloody” seemed more like a show for Balagan or WET than ArtsWest; a little too edgy and raw for the quiet neighborhood and its rather MOR audience. It seemed to be an odd match of material with the talent and scope of the company.

Guess what? It was! “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is the messiest production from an established Seattle theater company that I’ve seen all year. It’s poorly directed and designed and the last half hour is a chore to sit through. It’s plagued by the use of a monstrous fog machine which runs through the entire performance filling the theater with rancid smog (and this complaint comes from a pack a day smoker…). The lighting design is not good; actors are standing around in the dark…the sound design is abysmal, alternating between blaring and inaudible…the fun, “wacky” set has multiple levels to play scenes, but it’s an ugly mess, resembling a flea market stall that blew up in a hog shed. I’ll give a shout out to the costumes, by Anastasia Armes; they were colorful and appropriate for the style of the show and the only saving grace design-wise.

The chief culprit of this mess is Christopher Zinovitch the director/choreographer of this show and the Artistic Director of ArtsWest. It’s a shockingly poor job of direction/production from a very experienced theater professional. The staging is clunky at best and the mostly youthful cast is left in the lurch without any idea how to play any nuances of their characters. Lead actor Cody Bringman as Andrew Jackson is an attractive, charismatic young actor but he’s not only under-directed, he’s miscast. Jackson as conceived by the creators of “Bloody” is a ROCK star not a boyband POP star. Mr. Bringman is fine when he’s channeling boy band bravado, which largely consists of pouting and looking adorable but flounders when it comes to the heavier, more dramatically charged scenes towards the end of the play. There are moments in the final quarter of this production you want to run screaming from the theater due to the slow, slooooow pacing and the lack of any action on the stage as actors mumble and fumble around, desperate to find something of interest to do….it’s painful to watch.

There are a few saving graces on stage…Meg McLynn has an effective passion and gravitas as Rachel Jackson, the much put upon wife. Justin Huertas continues to be a young actor to watch as he excelled in numerous small roles, displaying strong comedic chops, particularly as John Quincy Adams. But, the most powerful and charismatic actor on that stage was Jeff Orton, also playing numerous roles. Mr. Orton has enormous stage presence and clarity and all eyes were on him, to the detriment of other actors and moments in the show. He was also by far the most accomplished dancer in a show with not particularly sophisticated choreography. It would have been a far wiser choice to cast HIM in the leading role.

Yes, it’s a harsh review but this show is a disaster. And, I wasn’t the only one to apparently feel that way. As is frequently the case, I attended opening night of this production in a house full of friends, relatives and subscribers, and as usual, the audience was a very noisy and enthusiastic bunch as they cheered on their friends and family members. But their screams and delighted comments and laughter and joy QUICKLY dissipated as the show, and the dreadful fog, continued. The house was deadly quiet by the end, and most telling of all, there wasn’t the Obligatory Small Theater Opening Night Standing Ovation. We all just wanted to escape the smog filled world of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”.

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