VERSAILLES — The Woodford Theatre has opened a captivating, creatively directed and detail-oriented production of the Tony Award-winning musical Big River, Roger Miller's adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The novel and the musical are landmarks of Americana: the book by Mark Twain is the first piece of literature to celebrate the American vernacular, and the musical is a compendium of American folk music styles, from spirituals to country to Dixieland.
Director Bo List has done a magnificent job of bringing this amusing and touching show to life on one of the region's most consistently well-served stages.
List's creativity is evident at every turn. His staging is full of deft and telling touches, moving 24 people around the relatively small space with clarity and purpose, but also knowing when to let a character just be at rest and sing. He also succeeds in blending the talent levels of the cast to a uniform quality. For all the folksiness of the proceedings, there are no rough edges: Every detail has been thought through and addressed to make a polished theatrical offering.
The strong choreography by Diana Evans-Pulliam reinforces List's staging. The set by Jerome Wills is ingenious, placing the excellent instrumental ensemble led by Donna Bonner in the frame of an old-time bandstand pavilion center stage with playing areas surrounding it in a semicircle across the stage. A central platform doubles as the raft, beautifully realized through lighting by Clifton Grimm.
The cast of Big River is superb from top to bottom. Scott Dimeo as Huck Finn demonstrates an extraordinary set of talents as actor, singer, comedian and dancer. This young man commands the stage throughout the show, never missing a line, a beat or a nuance. His enjoyment of performing translates into easy charisma, assuming the lead as if born to it.
Virgil M. Covington Jr. imbues the runaway slave Jim with a humble, homespun dignity that gives the production its real power. His performance gathers force as it goes, playing the character moment by moment rather than indicating the character's moral significance at all times. His singing is beautiful, too, and the rapport between him and Huck invite the audience to engage in their adventures compellingly.
The most enjoyable characters in any production of Big River are the King and the Duke, the outrageous conmen. Jacob Karnes and Carmen Geraci do not disappoint, clearly relishing the hilariously showy roles. They create the characters with broad strokes, but every stroke is comprised of myriad details, a thrilling display of their own lavish talents, appropriately dominating every scene in which they appear. Geraci's faux Shakespearean monologue at the beginning of the second act is one of the funniest scenes on a regional stage this season.
The supporting and ensemble roles are also played with flair and fervor by the excellent cast. Jessica French is a stand-out as Mary Jane, believably sympathetic throughout the incredible hi-jinks her character endures, and her lovely voice fills her songs with warmth. Melissa Wilkeson and Millie Hamilton play their widow and spinster parts as real people rather than as stereotypes to telling effect. Tyler Dezarn makes a zany Tom Sawyer. Tiffiney Baker brings heartfelt expression to her gospel-inflected numbers as the slave Alice.
The role of Pap, Huck's deadbeat dad, is a high-profile cameo with a hilarious hillbilly song ranting against the government. Pat Ryan seizes his moments with energy and, just like all these actors, nuance on a large scale, which is really the hallmark of this well-done show.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.