PARMA - For a low-budget theater company in its first full season one that has 10 weeks to stage three shows Cleveland's Mercury Summer Stock knows how to pack power into a production.
At least that's what I witnessed during Saturday night's solid performance of "Big River," the multi-Tony-Award winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain's masterpiece "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The star of this production is 29-year-old actor Brian M. Marshall as Huck Finn the rebellious, adventure-loving youth who shields runaway slave Jim from capture and helps him seek his freedom in pre-Civil War Missouri. The two sail across the Mississippi River, which in this production is represented by a board. Sean Martin's bare-bones set consists mostly of such objects, but a theater with little money often must settle for basics.
Marshall looks a tad too old for a teenager, but makes up for it with his voice. He sounds like someone some 14 years younger, and moves like an energetic teenager.
The tenderness in Marshall's voice and the globs of tears welling in his eyes as Huck empathizes with Jim's plight will melt your heart.
As the runaway slave, Charles Walker nearly matches the younger actor's performance. In the novel, Jim speaks in the black dialect of the time. Walker sounds a bit too sophisticated in the role. But armed with a powerful voice full of optimism, the actor beautifully captures Jim's determination to secure his freedom and find his family. And it is hard to miss the sincerity and gratitude when he confides in Huck that the youngster is his only true friend.
That disclosure, also in the novel, serves as one of the more powerful moments of the musical adaptation, which is faithful to Twain's book almost to the letter. Those who have read it will immediately recognize the opening line when Huck says they won't know him unless they have read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
The musical contains Twain's recognizable characters as well as Huck's adventures, the humor, hope and spirit inherent in the novel.
The narrator, as in the book, is Huck. Throughout the musical, he addresses the audience. This gives us access to the thoughts running through his mind, such as the conflict of whether he should turn in Jim, as those who brought him up would want or protect Jim and right a wrong.
A word of caution: The "N" word is used in the musical numerous times, as is the case in the book. It would have been a mistake to leave it out, as that would have sugarcoated the prejudicial attitudes Twain was trying to rail against.
The score, with music and lyrics by Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Roger Miller, is a mixture of blues, jazz, country, gospel, vaudeville and bluegrass. These American musical styles are perfect fits for a show that is classic Americana and each melody captures the moods of the characters and the story's themes.
The gospel-flavored "Waiting for the Light to Shine," evokes the hope of equality, as does the triumphant "Free At Last." Both numbers, especially the latter, foreshadow the Civil Rights movement.
The melancholy "Worlds Apart," suggests that though Jim and Huck may be friends, their backgrounds and ways of thinking effectively separate them. The carefree "I, Huckleberry, Me," conveys the character being content with who he is.
The anger-evoking "Guv'ment" lets Huck's drunken father, Pap, rant against the system for taking Huckleberry away from him. Actor Mark Cipra, clad in dirty overalls and mussed hair, is convincingly unsteady as the drunkard, but lacks the necessary anger in both the song and dialogue.
At one point, Pap tells Huck, "I'll rest now and I'll kill you later." But as we hear Cipra say it, we don't believe Pap will actually do it.
Faring better in their roles are Corey Joseph Mach's wide-eyed Tom Sawyer, Arthur Wise's commanding King and Daniel Marshall's flamboyant Duke.
But this production belongs to Marshall, whose heartfelt portrayal of Huck captures his inherent good nature and desire to right a huge wrong.
It's a performance that threatens to flood this river with more than just rain.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Big River"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday, as well as June 27, 28, 29 and 30.
WHERE: Parma Little Theatre, adjacent to Parma Senior High School, 6285 W. 54th St., Parma