Theater review: Old Lyric Repertory Company's 'Big River' provides toe-tapping fun

By Jay Wamsley

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 5:06 p.m. MDT

"Big River," Caine Old Lyric Theatre, Logan, 2 hours, 50 minutes running time with one intermission, $25-$9, 435-797-8022 or arts.usu.edu

LOGAN — Promotional material for "Big River," the third offering of the Old Lyric Repertory Company, was loaded with lots of adjectives — double modifiers, to be exact — to highlight the production's merits: rib-ticklin', knee slapping', toe-tappin', that sort of thing.

But as it turns out, there are a couple more of the double-barreled modifiers that might have been used, at least on opening night: harmony-blending, ear-pleasing, stage-filling and perhaps even satisfaction-rendering and ovation-spawning, awkward though they may be.

"Big River" is songwriter Roger Miller's valentine to Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a Tony award-winning Broadway musical playing for the first time on the Caine Lyric stage. While focusing mainly on the relationship between Huck Finn and runaway slave Jim, the stage is often filled to overflowing with an ensemble of characters from con men to preachers and gun-totin' farmers.

Providing most of the positive double modifiers in the show was Stefan Espinsoa, playing Huck. Espinosa has a couple things going for him to make Huck work perfectly: he has a baby-face look about him that makes him look like a perpetual 16-year-old; and he has an ability to harmonize with a high tenor that draws out the best in those with whom he is singing.

Last season, Espnisoa was the perfect nerdy caretaker in "Little Shop of Horrors," but this year was asked to be the pivotal character of "Big River." And he handled it deftly.

Even, and perhaps especially, numbers with Jim, played by the big-voiced Lego Louis, were made richer and more listenable by Espinosa's Art Garfunkel-like tenor playing on top of Louis' rich baritone. Particularly good was "Muddy Water," a duet from the show's stars.

The first ensemble number — "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven," with 20-plus characters sometimes roaming the stage — started off rich and full and gave the audience high hopes. The first ensemble number of the second act, though, was as rough as a Mississippi River storm and dashed some of those hopes before "Free at Last" near the production's end smoothed the rough waters.

Joining Huck and Jim on their raft trip down the big river were Duke and King, con men played by Richie Call and Nicholas Dunn. Call turns out to be a bit of a scene stealer throughout the production and his offering of "Gov'ment," while playing the dual role of Huck's father early in the play, was a highlight. Espinosa, Call and Dunn also were a delight with "When the Sun Goes Down in the South," which was also a perfect example of Espinosa's ability to make others better with his harmonizing voice.

The set design and lighting are well-done and there were no problems with some of the actor's being miked. Though the opening night production looked scary at three hours in length, a rousing curtain call number got the audience up off their feet for some of that double-modifying toe-tapping and hand-clapping.

"Big River" runs in repertory with "Steel Magnolias," "Private Lives" and "Lend Me a Tenor."

Jay Wamsley lives in Smithfield and covers events in and around Cache Valley. He can be reached at jaywams01@gmail.com

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