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Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019

Review: VWCT’s ‘Big River’ worth trip

PERRY LUHN/special to the VW independent

Van Wert Civic Theatre’s current production, Big River, is a visual and aural treat for the faithful VWCT patrons. It should also be a terrific treat for anyone who is looking to spend an evening in the presence of superior musical theatre.

Huckleberry Finn (Quinton Bouilon, left) and runaway slave Jim (Everett Collier) prepare for a trip on the "Mighty Mississipp" during Van Wert Civic Theatre's production of "Big River." (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

I confess that I had always hoped to never see this musical, having little interest in the story. But the opportunity to put my thoughts on paper in its description, and another chance to see several highly talented friends perform this, changed my mind. I was happy to see the play and was very pleasantly surprised — both by the production and my positive reaction to it.

Big River opened on April 25, 1985, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York and ran for over 1,000 performances, being nominated for 10 Tony awards and winning seven, including “Best Musical”.

Based on Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this popular musical tells the story of a hazardous and sometimes humorous journey toward adventure and freedom shared by Huck and his runaway slave friend, Jim. William Hauptman wrote the book for the musical, and Roger Miller composed the music and lyrics.

Let me say first that I have seen the actor playing Jim, Everett Collier, perform in many plays. I have been on stage with him, directed, and even written plays that featured him. So my “objective” opinion of his abilities is somewhat colored by my admiration for his talent. Having said that, I can state that anyone who will attend this production will come away shaking his head over Mr. Collier’s brilliance. Every word and gesture is perfect. He is Jim, and the audience will suffer with him and his predicament. They will also marvel at his control over both volume and timbre. The Van Wert theatre-going public should be well aware of the talent this man brings to their stage.

While Collier brings an experienced set of skills to this production, another actor, younger and shorter on “paid-dues,” lights up the stage. The star of Big River is Huck Finn. And beside Everett Collier and some of the other huge talents on the stage, the actor playing Huck could be swept aside or marginalized. Quinton Bouillon, a high school senior, refused to take a back seat to anyone. His lines are crisp and reasoned. He brings a youthful exuberance, a fine volume, and a pleasant voice to the lead role. He held his own in his duets with Collier, kept his end of the bargain in a very nice trio with Collier and Nancy Williams Shuffle, and a raucous trio with the King and the Duke (Mark Sampson and Nick McClellan). He is easily the standout in the midst of standouts.

Sampson and McClellan were spot-on as the two rogues fleecing the unsuspecting, up and the down the Big River, and they sang and danced as well. But major kudos to the rest of the big voices who, while not sharing huge spotlights, made the show special. The aforementioned Williams Shuffle did not have a feature role, as she has often had in the past, but shone anyway with her lead-in to “You Oughta Be Here With Me.” Her solo was technically perfect and moving. Dan Basinger, as Pap Finn, also did not have either the most powerful lines or music to sing, but his professionalism was superbly evident. Last but certainly not least, Vicki Shurelds, a crafty theatre veteran, showed her chops with several solos, including a stirring first act rendition of “The Crossing.” Shurelds can still belt it.

Though I mention just a few shining stars and their contributions, let me say that the rest of the cast, many of who have not yet entered high school, comported themselves with vigor and enthusiasm. Energy on the stage, whether consciously noticed by the audience or not, drives the production and makes it an enjoyable feast for eye and ear. The entire cast manifested that energy, while making the disciplined moves which carried the story along.

There is still, inherent in having young actors on the stage, one of the main drawbacks of youth, that of rushing lines. Often in shows with younger actors, I feel as if they are in a hurry to get their speeches out, so “it can be someone else’s turn.” There was some of this here, but not a great deal of it. For the most part, lines were delivered on time, they were clearly spoken, and entrances were precise.

I attribute the precision of the action, in many respects, to veteran director Jerry Zimmerman, whose abilities in this area are something of a legend in northwest Ohio. His choreography has a flavor to it that is immediately identifiable by now to the VWCT regular. A Zimmerman production is always worth seeing. In addition, the music, under the direction of Dee Fisher, was at once pleasing, subtle, and unobtrusive.

If I had to pick on one small thing, it was the discomfort I felt when a character repeatedly used some modern words that someone will need to point out to me in any of Mark Twain’s works. I may be wrong, but I believe those words are of a much more recent vintage. But this is a very small thing when compared to the fun and entertainment brought by this cast and crew. The best news is that this production opened on Thursday and runs for three weekends, giving the local theatre buffs an excellent opportunity to come out and marvel at the talent assembled there.

Ticket reservations can be made by calling 419.238.9689 between 2 and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and a half hour before each performance. Big River will be presented January 24, 25, 26, 27, 31, and February 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, and 9. All productions start at 8 p.m., except for Sunday matinees, which start at 2 in the afternoon.

POSTED: 01/25/13 at 2:41 am. FILED UNDER: News