‘Big River’ floods stage with tremendous talent

Performance Riverside presents the musical adaption of the famous Mark Twain novel

Play Review

Written by Mary Valterria

The Landis Performing Arts Center is the current home to Performance Riverside’s production of “Big River, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

The musical, taken from the book by William Hauptman and adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, follows an adventurous young boy by the name of Huckleberry Finn who escapes an abusive father by faking his own death and eventually helps lead a slave named Jim to freedom.

The April 1 opening night show of “Big River” opened its doors to a minimal sized audience; only about half of the theater’s seats were filled. The mostly mature crowd of patrons filtered into to the auditorium from the slightly chilly exterior and found their seats with assistance from helpful and accommodating ushers.

The theater lights dimmed at precisely 7 p.m when the show commenced and the audience found themselves in pre-Civil War Missouri. The actors were energetic and lively, and the first few musical numbers were entertaining and fruitfully executed.

Riverside City College students weighed in on the first act.

Gerardo Sanchez said that the cast and set were good overall.

“I enjoyed the music,” said Sanchez. “The band was professional.”

Catherine Cabag said that though she had a decent impression of the cast, it was difficult to understand Juan Caballer, who portrayed Huck Finn, possibly because of a speech impediment.

Caballer was spirited and enthusiastic. His stage presence was fair and he reasonably convinced spectators that he was a boy in search of mischief. Caballer, however, soon began to stumble over his lines and his errors in delivery were at a count of 10 by the end of the show. His musical renditions fell flat in some areas, despite his animated exhibitions.

Although Cabag wasn’t entirely impressed with Caballer, she did express appreciation for the actor who played Huck’s father.

“He was surprisingly (passionate) while in song,” said Cabag.

Ryan Addison Coon took on the role of Pap. Coon’s short time onstage depicting Huck’s father was frightfully convincing, skillfully carried out and positively memorable. It was one of the highlights of the entire show.

Coon went on to portray other characters such as a townsman and a doctor, but his shining moment was as the “Guv’ment” hating drunk who resented his son.

The true champion of the stage was Edred Utomi, who brought to life the character of Jim – the runaway slave that Huck traveled down the Mississippi River with in search of freedom and independence.

Utomi captured the attention of playgoers with his impeccable musical numbers and his powerful conveyance of a man in captivity, whose only objective was to be reunited with his family.

“Things picked up in the second half,” said Gerardo Sanchez. “(Utomi) had a good, strong singing voice.”

“(Utomi) was somber and soulful,” added Cabag. “He was appropriate for the character.”

The performance given by Utomi brought viewers onboard the raft as Jim found an everlasting friendship in Huck.

While they floated down the big river, the two experienced a variety of emotions and found themselves in some uncomfortable situations. They passed a boat full of runaway slaves who were being returned to their masters, saw a dead body floating down the river and eventually allowed two commandeering crooks to ride along with them, almost jeopardizing their budding friendship.

The climax of the show came when Jim was on the verge of being taken back into captivity, but instead was given the news that he had been freed in his previous owner’s will. Through Utomi’s artfully crafted performance, audience members felt relief and hope right alongside Jim.

Each of the grave experiences that Jim and Huck faced came with a great deal of consequence, but through the eyes of a child, Huck viewed the encounters as adventures.

For Jim, the voyage was a matter of life or death. For Utomi, the voyage was a breakout performance, triumphing over the rest of the cast and succeeding expectations of those in attendance.

His presence was clearly celebrated at the close of the show as Utomi received an overwhelming amount of applause from the audience members, some of whom gave him a standing ovation.

Utomi, Coon and the rest of the cast will be reprising their roles in “Big River, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” through April 10.