KANSAS CITY, Mo—
The late Country singer Roger Miller was best known for his hit comic tunes like “Dang Me” and “King of the Road.” But his greatest achievement occurred a long way from Nashville.
“Big River,” Miller’s musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” became a Broadway smash in 1985, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical (William Hauptman).
The reasons for its success are crystal clear in the rousing, highly entertaining ‘concert style’ version now offered by Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center.
As has become the hallmark of MTH’s shows, it eschews big production values, demonstrating that you don’t need elaborate sets and costumes to achieve theatrical power.
Director Sarah Crawford has assembled a talented ensemble that capably performs Miller’s country and gospel-inspired melodies and shrewdly clever lyrics.
In MTH’s concert-style presentations, the actors deliver the action directly to the audience from behind microphones. But under Crawford’s inventive direction that applies plenty of creative movement, it’s never static. Plus, in the confines of the MTH Theater in Crown Center, one can catch all of the actors’ facial nuances.
Devon Norris is an engaging Huck, displaying a strong voice along with an appropriately spunky attitude. He shines on Miller’s catchy tunes like “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” and “I Huckleberry, Me.”
Justin McCoy is also memorable as the longsuffering slave, Jim, who accompanies Huck on their infamous down river voyage on the Mississippi. He shows some impressive vocal power on “Free at Last.”
But the scene-stealer is veteran Kip Niven as Huck’s no-good, likkered-up Pap. He shows deft comic timing as he complains about the dadgum “Guv’ment.”
The eight-piece band, under the tight direction of pianist Jeremy Watson, provides solid accompaniment, and Shane Rowse’s evocative lighting is a big plus, too.
One might assume that a concert version of a Broadway musical would be less satisfying than a fully mounted production, but that’s not the case. The theatre may be intimate, but there’s nothing small about “Big River.”
“Big River” runs through June 26th at the MTH Theatre in Crown Center, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Mo. Information is available at www.musicaltheaterheritage.com or by calling 816-221-6987.