Wednesday, March 7, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "BIG RIVER" at California Youth Conservatory Theatre

Friendship and Freedom

California Youth Conservatory Theatre’s stately “Big River” boasts a talented youth cast headed by two terrific leading men

By Donnie Matsuda

Perhaps it’s true what they say: the third time is the charm.

That is most definitely the case with CYC’s majestic production of Big River, which opened this past weekend at the Joan B. Kroc Theatre in Rolando. This is the company’s third time mounting the sprawling musical (first done in 2003 and then again in 2008) and they have hit the mark with their handsome, mostly professional staging lead by two incredibly talented, golden-voiced performers: Josh Pinkowski as Huckleberry Finn and Shaun T. Evans as runaway slave Jim.

Shaun T. Evans and Josh Pinkowski. Photo courtesy of Jon Thomason.

Big River is the musical version of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It was born out of San Diego’s very own La Jolla Playhouse over twenty five years ago and while the script hearkens back to a time (the pre-Civil War era) and a place (the simple world of Southern country bumpkins) that is both dated and derogatory, it offers up a lot of heart and humor in its genuine, down-to-earth characters. As a side note, CYC has chosen not to tone down the overt racist overtones in the play and their production keeps the judicious use of the “n-word” intact as well as several gut-wrenching scenes involving the inhumane treatment of slaves.

The story of Big River is a coming of age tale of sorts, as it follows young Huck from his days growing up under the watchful eye of Widow Douglas, as he is placed back in the care of his violent and drunken father Pap, and finally as he escapes the hum-drum of his everyday life to seek adventure elsewhere, namely floating down the Mississippi on a raft with runaway slave Jim. Together, Huck and Jim encounter all sorts of colorful characters (including an over-the-top King and Duke) and get into some trouble along the way (the seafaring shenanigans of troublemaker Tom Sawyer), but through it all they forge ahead in their friendship and in their quest for freedom.

The score by country songwriter Roger Miller is largely serviceable, though the lyrics are mostly lackluster and the songs do nothing to develop the characters or further the plot. They are simply there for filler (and some fun) but they at least add a bit of musical variety – from soulful spirituals to soaring duets to tearful trios - in an otherwise static three-hour long show.

Josh Pinkowski and Josh Shtein. Photo courtesy of Jon Thomason.

Despite the dated script and uneven score, the success of Big River rides rather heavily - almost exclusively - on the shoulders of its two leading men, the dynamic duo of Huck and his rafting partner in crime, Jim. In CYC’s production, Josh Pinkowski (who alternates with Reed Lievers) is perfectly cast as the humble and endearing Huck and he delivers the character’s homespun dialogue and sweet country-twanged tenor with great ease. As slave Jim, CYC Managing Artistic Director Shaun T. Evans is blessed with some incredibly powerful pipes and imbues his character with just the right blend of hope and humility. While their lives may be worlds apart, Pinkowski and Evans form a perfect pair and their soaring duets (delivered with vocal panache and pitch perfect harmonies) are the highlights in a uniformly vocally strong show.

In supporting roles, Francesco Valenti is appropriately smug and smarmy as The Duke, Josh Shtein is full of slick swagger as The King, Colin Garon is a ruggish Tom Sawyer, Matt Roehl is a believable Mark Twain, and Josh Shtein is a master of broad physical comedy as the drunken, foul-mouthed Pap. Among the women, Bonni Dance provides some soulful singing as Alice and Madeline Loewe-Pollock (who alternates with Brielle Mussomeli) lends her heartfelt acting and powerhouse voice to the role of sweet Mary Jane.

Brooke Henderson and Bonni Dance. Photo courtesy of Jon Thomason.

Evans also does double duty as director and he leads his 42-member cast with a sure hand and a keen eye. He uses nearly all of the playing space on the expansive Kroc theatre stage and keeps his production moving as smooth and stately as a steamboat. His staging works seamlessly with Rocky DeHaro’s spirited choreography, which allows some of the young members of the company to really show off in the big ensemble numbers. And choral director Amy McDowell does wonders in getting the cast to sing and harmonize as well as they do. The only downfall is that there isn’t a live orchestra in the house, but the tracks of pre-recorded music are actually clear and robust enough to effectively underscore the show’s powerful singers.

And the technical elements of the production are all first rate, including Jason McIntyre’s rustic set design (which includes a life-sized “floating” raft and a couple of beautiful scenic drops), O.P. Hadlock’s dramatic lighting, and countless, colorful period costumes designed by Beth Connelly.

Josh Shtein, Josh Pinkowski, and Francesco Valenti. Photo courtesy of Jon Thomason.

Overall, CYC’s production of Big River successfully navigates the rough tides of a rocky score and meandering plotline to fully showcase the abilities of its young cast. While it’s a far cry from the edgy, modern musicals of today, it’s still a durable revival that manages to entertain with its homespun humor and the powerhouse performances of its two leading men.

So, grab your straw hat, board the nearest raft, and experience the adventures of Huckleberry Finn for yourself before CYC’s River runs dry.

Things to know before you go: Big River presented by California Youth Conservatory Theatre plays at Joan B. Kroc Theatre through March 11, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:00pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$32. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 944-7574 or visit

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