With guest director Brandon Box-Higdem's sure hand at the tiller and an onstage talent pool as big as the mighty Mississippi, Big River simply swept away Friday's opening-night audience at North Little Rock’s Argenta Community Theater.
Payton Justice as the adventurous and mendacious Huck Finn and Jeremiah Herman as Jim, the runaway slave with whom he travels down the river, superbly head up a raft of excellent individual and ensemble performances..
I apologize to all the folks I'm leaving out, but deserving particular toots of the riverboat horn: Jeremy Clay and Shelton Harden as the pair of pseudo-royal con men; Will Porter as the highly imaginative Tom Sawyer (country-rapping a particularly enjoyable version of “Hand For the Hog”); Roben R. Sullivant as the Bible-beating Miss Watson with a quick turn as the Strange Woman;Patti Airoldi as the Widow Douglas and Tom's Aunt Sally; Duane Jackson as Judge Thatcher and Tom's verbose and irascible Uncle Silas; Grace Pitts as bereaved and almost bamboozled Mary Jane Wilkes, giving an extra touch of country twang to her solo number, “You Oughta Be Here With Me”; and Tony Clay as Huck's drunken Pappy (despite, rather than assisted by, an overdone fake gut).
Deserving of special mention: the eight-piece "pit" band, executing Miller's country-centered score with considerable panache.
Box-Higdem's staging, on a multi-level unitary set that represents various docksides and river venues, is spot-on, except the moments that the not-entirely-convincing "raft" set-piece meanders about the stage. The cast executes excellently Christen Pitts' sometimes complicated choreography.
Friday night's audience got a little extra treat: a five-minute monologue by Mark Twain tribute performer Bill Oberst. (It did look a little odd to watch him leave the stage, and Hardy Peacock return as the almost identically costumed character.)
Big River (music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) continues to flow, 8 p.m. Saturday and July 27-28, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursdsay July 24-26 at the theater, 405 Main St., North Little Rock. Ticket information is available by calling (501) 353-1443 or online at tinyurl.com/ACTBigRiver.