'Big River' flows agreeably at Slayton House Theater

Life along the Mississippi River in the mid-19th century is revisited in "Big River." This 1985 Broadway musical, whose seven Tony Awards included Best Musical, agreeably flows along in the Silhouette Stages production at Slayton House Theater.

Based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the show's music and lyrics by Roger Miller are pleasantly nostalgic in nature, and the book by William Hauptmann balances those nostalgic elements with more pointed observations about slavery.

Although this musical's score and script are not exactly inspired, they generally serve the source material well. You'll be glad you went along for this rafting trip.

The Silhouette Stages production is fortunate to have Brian Nabors as the free-spirited Huck Finn, because this actor possesses the right facial expressions and vocal delivery for Huck's good-natured misbehavior. Nabors sings with admirable confidence in numbers including "Waitin' For the Light to Shine" and "I, Huckleberry, Me."

As Huck's friend and fellow prankster, Tom Sawyer, Jesse Kinstler brings plenty of smiles to the role. Tom disappears from the stage for extended periods of time, however, serving as a reminder that Twain's novel has at its heart the friendship between a white teen who is a social outcast, Huck, and a runaway slave, Jim (Alex Pecas).

This production has its finest moments when the actors portraying Huck and Jim blend their voices in the duets "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain" and "Worlds Apart."

There are numerous other characters in Twain's fully populated story. Huck and Tom hang out with a bunch of teen-aged guys who would keep a school guidance counselor busy if they ever bothered to go to school. By way of negative role models, the adult male characters are rough around the edges and in some cases have criminal records.

So, it's to be expected that most of the ensemble musical numbers have a Midwestern macho aura. That makes it all the more welcome when female voices occasionally are heard. This is especially the case with actor Clare Kneebone, who is featured in several roles including Mary Jane Wilkes. That young female character beautifully expresses her feelings in a couple numers she shares with other characters, "You Ought to Be Here With Me" and "Leavin' Not the Only Way to Go."

Among the many additional characters you'll see along the Mississippi, you'll notice a white-suited fellow usually standing passively and silently in the background. He represents Mark Twain (Tom Gross). While it seems like a neat idea to have the writer of the source novel on hand to oversee how it plays out in musical form, this Broadway show doesn't always seem certain whether he should have some presence or should melt into the crowd. Besides, you may find yourself wondering whether this isn't really Colonel Sanders scouting franchise sites.

The big cast gathered on the river bank in the Silhouette Stages production understandably varies in terms of acting ability, but they seem like a cohesive population as they're moved about the stage by director Steven Fleming and choreographer Jennifer Frederick. They also have really effective full-cast numbers, including "How Blest We Are."

Literally backing up these actors are the musicians placed on a wharf-evocative platform at the back of the stage: musical director Keith Tittermary at the keyboard, Annabelle Capino on violin, Michael K. Heney on harmonica, Jeff Glass on drums, and Andrew Imhoff on guitar.

Although the emphatically played drums sometimes throw off the musical balance, the musicians also have lovely moments when they help immerse you in that distant historical era.

Silhouette Stages' production of "Big River" runs through Oct. 26 at Slayton House Theater, 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake Village Center, in Columbia. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10- $20. Call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.silhouettestages.com.

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