Memorable songs, characters, catfish

April 15, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a new entry on the roster of successful Broadway shows currently making the rounds on the dinner theater circuit, "Big River" isn't especially well known.

It's a musical version of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," so you know right off that unforgettable characters like Huck, Tom Sawyer, Jim the runaway slave, and drunken old Pap will be waiting for you on stage.

The breezy, countrified score was composed by Roger Miller, the "King of the Road" from the '60s.

"Big River" is a tuneful, heartwarming show eminently worth seeing when the characterizations are up to snuff, which they are at the Chesapeake Music Hall where Huck, Jim and their raft can be seen floating down the Mississippi through May 25.

This is a tough show to bring off, with its thorny scene changes and an all-important river ambience to create. You won't confuse CMH's handling of the logistics with anything the Broadway set designers came up with, but if you can persuade yourself to go along with the water sequences you should wind up having a mighty nice time.

You'll surely love John Rose, who's as puckishly adorable a Huckleberry as you'd ever want to see. Genial, energetic, and oozing with charm, he's totally in command every minute he's on stage.

Archie L. Harris Jr. debuts nicely at the Music Hall as Jim, the escaped slave whose heart aches for the wife and children from whom he's been separated so cruelly.

Harris interacts well with Rose, especially in "River in the Rain," the show's most memorable song.

Harris is less effective singing on his own. I'd also like to see more emotion from him when Jim is finally freed.

Plenty of yuks come from David Reynolds and Michael Rease as the pair of rapscallions whose nasty duplicity adds so much comic spice to the action.

Sue Bell is warm and touching as the sweet innocent they attempt to fleece out of her inheritance.

For down-home color, there's Ronnie Schronce, who charms the weevil right off the boll as Tom Sawyer, and Tere Fullmer, whose eyes bug out with Southern innocence as both the Widow Douglas and Tom's Aunt Sally. (She also reprised her signature role of Audrey in "Little Shop of Horrors" when she asked Huck's Pap "Where you been the last year?" in pure Brooklynese!)

Characterful singing comes from Charlie Rogers in a swinging rendition of "Arkansas" and from Thurman Rhodes, who is the picture of devout dignity in "Free At Last."

A few singers fought unsuccessfully with the unyielding rhythms of the recorded tape, but what a joy to hear real instruments (a great harmonica) instead of the digitalized calliope music CMH has dished up in the past.

And dang me if there wasn't a heaping platter of hot catfish warmin' itself on that there buffet!

Call 410-626-7515.

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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