To paraphrase one of Big River's best-known lyrics, I've been waitin' for the men to shine on the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre stage all summer long. In my estimation, and with the exception of a few notable performances - Antwaun Holley in Rent, Michael Oberfield in Show Boat - the male actors haven't really held their own against the female actors this season. That is, until Big River; on Saturday night, every single male performer in Mark Twain's boy-centric tale of Huck Finn offered a noteworthy performance.
Even before the production started, I was grateful to see Holley cast as Jim, the runaway slave. Holley's Showboat roles have been smaller than I would've preferred ever since Rent, so I was glad we'd be seeing more of his talent showcased in this musical. And did we ever, particularly his vocal talents. While his projection could've been louder, Holley's singing has a smooth, rich sound that's pitch-perfect on every song.
The moment Mike Detmer opened his mouth, I knew his seemingly natural, boyish charm was well-suited to the role of Huck. Detmer positively exudes youthfulness and joy, and his Huck could do no wrong in my eyes, even when his character was doing plenty of it.
Nick Lee's "Hand for the Hog" finds the actor giving his best performance of the summer. Singing as Tom Sawyer lauding the virtues of the hog, Lee's pacing and comedic timing couldn't be better, and elicited well-deserved laughs from the audience. It was a thrill to watch as Lee deftly used vocal pauses and facial expressions to convey the number's comedy.
Ryan Nelson, however, almost steals the show as Pap Finn, throwing himself into the character's crass, drunken nature, and playing it big while displaying full commitment to the role. Nelson commands your attention as he stumbles his way across the stage, swigging from a jug of moonshine, and manages to make his singular solo song, "Guv'ment," even funnier than written through his inebriated inflections.
Derrick Bertram's delivery of "Arkansas" adds a lot of fun to the proceedings, with his big smile and exuberant choreography. (Big River's program doesn't list a choreographer - except for Patrick Stinson on two songs - and that's too bad, as whoever handled the additional dancing deserves a mention.) Rob Engelson and Michael Oberfield are quite the pretentious pair as the Duke and King, respectively. And Isaac Jankowski, who can't be more than 18, manages to transcend his youth in his portrayals of both the upstanding Judge Thatcher and the uneducated Silas Phelps.
Big River isn't, however, a boys-only club. For one thing, it's directed by a woman - Jalayne Riewerts' show is well-paced and always interesting, even as the script and songs ebb and flow between fun, dramatic, dark, and dull. For another, there are women in the show, well-portrayed by Riewerts' female cast members. Sandee Cunningham, in particular, possesses a commanding stage presence as the toe-the-line Widow Douglas and the warm-hearted Sally Phelps. And while her role doesn't offer Amber Grey much opportunity to showcase her acting ability, it does show off her singing ability; her performance of "The Crossing" is haunting, while her "How Blest We Are" carries with it a deep sadness.
All of these great performances, though, are presented on a set that left me with a mixed impression. To start with, it's somewhat aesthetically off. Riewerts, who also serves as the show's set designer, created a three-tiered series of platforms shaped like piers, but covered in a gray, foamy substance that suggests rocks and/or caves. The space beneath the platforms, however, is masked by streamers, creating vertical stripes of gray and green that left me baffled. (Why stripes?) Yet while its look makes no sense, the design itself is ingenious, with the streamers allowing set pieces - such as Jim's and Huck's raft and Pap's camp - to be hidden beneath the platforms and quickly pushed out for use.
I enjoyed Showboat's Big River a lot more than I expected to, considering that the soundtrack's bluegrass and country style drives me a little nuts, and initially lowered my expectations. So, too, did this summer's previous performances by the Showboat's male actors, which have been, for the most part, adequate. Big River, though, showcases the reason these men are on Clinton's stage this year.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.