By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

America’s most famous and favorite humorist of the late 19th century and early 20th century was renaissance man Samuel L. Clemens, who authored his own real-life adventures, stories, essays, and novels under the pen name of Mark Twain.

He was born in 1835, the year of the arrival of the celestial body known as “Halley’s Comet”; which only makes an appearance in American skies every 75 years. He died 75 years later when Halley’s Comet returned in 1910.  What Mark Twain accomplished in his storied literary career lives on.

Twain’s legacy of rich tales and stories celebrating the rugged individualism and spirit of the era reflected the country’s culture of the times. Society west of the Hudson River of New York was considered to be too brash, brawny and adventurous for snobbish East Coast elites. Ohio was considered to be end of civilized America with St. Louis, Missouri, the gateway to the Pacific. 

America has come a long way since it lawless days of the wild-west. However, there’s still a lot of work to do culturally; we’re in the 21st century now in an evolving and ever-changing world. 

The musical “Big River” debuted on Broadway in 1985 and toured the nation in the years 2004 and 2005, nabbed regional theatre awards wherever it played is now on stage in a limited run at the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT)in Palm Springs.  Written by singer, songwriter, musician, and actor, the late Roger Miller, and librettist William Haulptam, is winningly directed and choreographed by PCT co-artistic director Se Layne.

Ms. Layne assembles a huge cast of thirty-one performers to tell Twain’s beloved 1884 American novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”    The musical production follows the characters of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, runaway slave Jim, The Duke, The King, Alice the slave, Mary Jane and others, on their journeys; and those of the slaves escaping to the North to their freedom. It’s been a beloved American classic novel and has been an entertaining American musical production for over thirty-five years.

To mount a rambling and sprawling story like “Big River” for the PCT stage is no mean feat.
The set design by co-artistic director and resident set and lighting designer J.W. Layne, provides clean and clever multi-level performing spaces for the large cast to perform their magic.  There are no seats with blocked views of the stage action. 

The costumes designed by resident designer Derik Shopinski, and his assistants Kathryn Ferguson, Virginia Sullick, and Colleen Walker never disappoint. They always bring the ring of authenticity and are spot-on as to the period or to contemporary settings. The Sound designed by Jean Rodriguez, and Props by director Layne complete the creative team.  The production is stage managed by Derik Shopinski.

Breathing life into the character stories are: an energetic Ryan Holmes as Huck Finn, who brings just the right amount an earnestness and a slightly mischievous quality to his Huck performance and to his song numbers that work well for the audience.

Dan Tullis, Jr. as the runaway slave Jim, brings down the house with a basso-profundo voice to die for.  His range is amazing and his acting even more so. He has loads of movie and TV acting credits and it shows in this production. 

Jonathan Hatsios as Tom Sawyer, Donald Kelley as The Duke, Ron Coronado as The King, Keisha D as the slave Alice, shines with her stunning gospel singing voice, Terry Huber as Judge Thatcher/Silas Phelps, Alan Berry as Counselor Robinson, Anna Grace Wallace as Mary Jane Wilkes, Mado Nunez as Pap Finn, and when he’s not on stage, is the resident wig designer for PCT productions; all deliver fine yeomen support as do the eighteen ensemble members. Also,  It’s a joy hear to two and three-part harmony singing in this musical.  We need more productions with harmony voices. Well done singers!

The music accompaniment is led by Musical Director Michael Reno on piano, David Bronson on drums, Larry Holloway on bass, and John Pagles on guitar. There are eighteen musical numbers in this production.  Act I features songs “River in the Rain” and “Muddy Water”, both numbers sung by Ryan Holmes and Dan Tullis Jr, respectively, and “The Crossing” sung by Keisha D and the slaves.

Act II features such songs as “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine” (in Reprise), “Free at Last”, emotionally sung by Mr. Tullis and Ms. Keisha D and the slaves. The rousing reprise of “Muddy Water” in the finale number by the entire company brings the audience to their feet in a series of standing ovations.

“Big River” is a crowd-pleasing musical production that performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre through May 19, 2010.  For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123.

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