BENNINGTON — What exactly is it about the grand spectacle of a musical with a huge cast and live band that draws in audiences? What makes people fall in love with larger than life characters, improbable scenarios, outrageous dialog – and then some?
The answer to these questions, and perhaps others which are far more salient and timely, can be found in the award-winning musical "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," directed and choreographed by Kennedy Center honoree Tim Howard, with assistance from Elizabeth Parkinson.
The show opened July 8 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, and runs through July 24.
Music and lyrics are by Roger Miller, from the book by William Hauptmann. "Big River" won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, and seven Drama Desk Awards. Oldcastle's artistic director Eric Peterson tells audiences before every show that he "wanted to produce it since first seeing it on Broadway years ago."
Peterson finally got his wish; the challenge of that, of course, is its size. Everything about "Big River" is larger than life, especially the cast of 16 - a feat never before attempted in Oldcastle's 45 year history.
And yet, could there possibly be a better time – uncannily so – than these few weeks right after the nation witnessed yet more racial violence that claimed the lives of two civilians and five police officers?
Probably not, even if this raucous production took a lighter and more fun way to deliver a poignant message on human relations, all dressed in a late 1840s scenario on a Mississippi riverboat.
Let's be clear about this up front: There are 16 people in this cast. Some career professionals. Some just embarking on their stage careers. Others still in college. While my word restriction keeps me from mentioning any one of them at length, they all excelled and contributed to this mega spectacle.
And with three exceptions, the rest all played multiple roles in what can only be described as a cornucopia of the senses. I have never felt a need to name every actor in a cast, but there is always a first time, and "Big River" was that good.
There's more to that, which I'll address later, but first, in order of appearance:
Oldcastle co-founder Gary Allan Poe, as Mark Twain and others. Christine Decker as the widow Douglas and others. Bennington College grad Sarah Robotham as the pious Miss Watson and others.
Drew Davidson as Judge Thatcher and others. John Fitzpatrick as Tom Sawyer, who also showed off on guitar. Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) student Thomas Bergamo as Ben and others. Matt Grasso, a recent Kennedy Center honoree, as Simon and others.
Mount Anthony grad and current SUNY Potsdam student Sarah Solari as Mary Jane and others. Heather Farney as Susan Wilkes and others – as well as a most capable viola player. WCSU student Jillian Caillouette as Joanna and others.
Alana Cauthen as Alice and others. Marymount Manhattan student Jordan Tyson as Betsy and others. Peter Langstaff as the King and others, and Richard Howe as the Duke and others.
Those last two scalawags stole the show at times, which ran two hours and 10 minutes, 10 minute intermission included.
Lights by Scott Cally, costumes by Roy Hamlin and Ursula McCarty, set by Dan Courchaine, and sound by Cory Wheat greatly enhanced the show's presentation, along with Kristine Schlachter's capable stage management.
John Foley's musical direction demonstrated his deep talent and professionalism. He commanded the harp and guitar, while Matt Edwards on keyboard, Robert Zimmerman on bass, and Jeff McRae on drums kept our feet tapping and all evening.
I reserved a bit longer mention for the two main characters, Huck, played by Anthony J. Ingargiola, and Jim, portrayed by Reji Woods.
These two young men, one white and one black, hit the mark on the story's target, passing along Twain's original message of togetherness, and of friendship akin to brotherhood. With all the humor flying around this production, there were still several incisively poignant moments which warranted more than just one Kleenex.
But there is a reason why I named everyone acting in this musical. Because each one of those actors, old or young, white or black, major or minor in role, contributed not just to a fun, hugely entertaining production, but also to speaking volumes on the human condition.
As such, in light of recent tragic events, everyone should be clamoring to bring their entire family, children and all, to see this musical.
This, not just for the superior entertainment value of a long-proven show, but also as a reminder that true harmony, equality, and relationships between races, religions, and cultures can't be legislated or dictated by burgeoning governments, overzealous officials or sound-bite oriented edicts.
While politicians and other demagogues will always try to seize the limelight in the aftermath of such events, the truth is that those above-stated virtues must be won in the trenches, one person at a time, and then another, and then yet another.
The actors of "Big River" did a much better job of it than any talking head. When we all raise our children to respect and love one another – to reach that highly personal space where Huck and Jim take us in this gem by Oldcastle, one embrace at a time – then we truly will be better people, and live in a world worthy of our best efforts.
"Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, will run through July 24 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt. Tickets and info: 802-447-0564 or visit: oldcastletheatre.org.
— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).