by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
Huckleberry Finn: friend of Tom Sawyer, bad example to the boys of the town, companion of a runaway slave, and major character in 19th-century American literature.
Mark Twain created Huck in 1884, and the boy reached the Broadway musical stage in 1985 as Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller (“King of the Road,” “Dang Me,” “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” — Yes. That Roger Miller). Centerstage Clovis Community Theatre has staged a lively version at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre that bounces along with enthusiasm.
The success of any Big River production depends on the strength of its Huck, and Maxwell Debbas (who has played everything from Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof to Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast) is a lean, compact nuclear explosion of energy, bounding across the stage, reaching out to draw in the audience, a combination of the loose exuberance of a young Jim Dale (Broadway’s Barnum, audio reader of the Harry Potter books) and the broad-but-genially-goofy accent of Jim Varney (the Ernest movies).
Lamont Walker played The Lion in The Wiz at GCP, and he roars into the part of Jim, the runaway slave with a vision of freedom for himself and his family. His humanity shines through the degradation and oppression heaped upon him, shouting out in songs like “Worlds Apart” and “Free at Last.” Build a theatre around this man, and amazing things could happen.
Another shining star (and there are stars that shine through the backdrop) is Teresa Gipson as Alice, a slave, and in several chorus numbers. Her Fresno Grand Opera experience supporting Michael Buble and Andrea Bocelli shows in her vocals, and when those notes roll, the building rocks. Her emotional scenes bring home the human cost of slavery.
Nicholle Debbas as Mary Jane has a sweetness that brings believability to the moment when she brings love and a conscience to Huck’s heart. Justin Debbas brings a cheerful sliminess to the part of the Duke, and it’s nice to see longtime theatre supporter (and occasional participant) as Silas Phelps.
Tom Sawyer, oddly enough, turns out to be something of a villain in the story, as his desire to make life match the adventure fiction that he reads creates complications for Huck and Jim—and causes his own tragic downfall. Mitchell Lam Hau recreates Tom’s thirst for excitement with glee.
The moments you remember from reading the book are there, along with some you have forgotten, marshaled into order by director Josh Montgomery. The Big River Orchestra provides a big sound mixing country, bluegrass, and gospel under the baton of Pete van der Paardt, who also blows a mean harmonica.
Centerstage Clovis Community Theatre’s Big River continues at the Mercedes Edwards Theatre, 902 Fifth Street in Clovis, July 26-28 at 7:30 p.m., with a 1:30 p.m. matinee on the 28th. General admission tickets are $18, with student and senior tickets $15. More info can be found on their website and the KRL local theatre event page.