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Friday May 20th

‘Big River’ offers charming musical Americana

Playmakers Repertory Company production of Big River

Credit: Jon Gardiner
Buy Photos Playmakers Repertory Company production of Big River Credit: Jon Gardiner

UPDATED: 6:15 pm, April 11.

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misquoted a quote from Jim. The article has been changed to reflect the correction. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.


Time: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday 2 p.m. weekends (through April 24)
Location: Paul Green Theatre

Theater Review

Big River
Playmakers Repertory Company
Saturday, April 9

Verdict: 4 of 5 stars

There’s an awful lot of singing going on down the Mississippi.

And with the lively, dedicated cast of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s new production of “Big River,” that singing is strong and mostly successful.

“Big River” — the company’s first musical in more than a decade — sets Mark Twain’s classic novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to music.

While it sometimes seems like there are a few too many songs — characters often sing without any real dramatic purpose — the joyful production ultimately charms.

It starts slow. The main plot arc of the musical, like the book, follows the infamous Huck Finn and his escaped slave, Jim, down the Mississippi River, but the pair doesn’t reach the waterway until halfway through the first act.

Side plots and humorous episodes that helped elevate Twain’s novel come to serve as somewhat useless distractions on stage.

But just like Huck wins over the hearts of most everyone he meets, the likeable, talented ensemble cast wins over the audience.

As Jim, David Aron Damane is the production’s emotional core. His deep, resonating voice is captivating, and his second act solo, “Free at Last,” is the high point of the evening.

His youthful partner, Jason Edward Cook’s Huck, is almost as effective, and one must salute Cook for his dedication to the role.

During the two-hour-plus production, Cook never leaves the stage, placing most of the dramatic responsibility on his able shoulders.

The rest of the cast offers surprisingly potent vocal support.

Longtime PlayMakers veteran Scott Ripley almost steals the show as con artist Duke, and fellow veteran Jimmy Kieffer’s growling interpretation of Huck’s father in the angry Act I number “Guv’ment” is notable for its dark, drunk humor.

It helps that the cast is supported by popular local band The Red Clay Ramblers, who performed in the previews for the original Broadway run of “Big River.”

The band sits upstage right, every much a part of the action as the cast. They are spot on, and their upbeat performance of the diverse score is punchy and pleasing.

The band did not seem to tire, even as they played more than 20 songs — some of which seemed a little superfluous. The running time is long enough without the lengthy numbers given to bit characters in the second act.

A few problems with microphone feedback and some flubbed cues suggests that the company could have benefited from a few more days of previews, but the show will likely only improve as its run continues.

Early in Act I, Jim reads Huck’s fortune, predicting “considerable trouble and considerable joy.”

After two and a half hours of nonstop musical numbers — some good, some not —that fortune comes to describe the play itself.

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