Big River, little voices
TMCC’s new musical is fun to watch, but the singing could be better
There’s a term in the theater business for people who can act, sing and dance: “triple threat.” In Big River, a musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Truckee Meadows Community College has cast several triple threat performers, but unfortunately not in the two leading roles. The production as a whole is entertaining, but weak singing mars what could have been a much stronger performance.
As Huckleberry Finn, Jeff Bellows seems to be an obvious choice. He’s got a thoroughly mischievous aura about him, from his crooked grin to his twinkling eyes to his chin-length, messy brown hair. Every move Bellows makes is crackling with boyish energy—and wow, does this show demand a lot of energy.
As a singer, however, Bellows isn’t up to the task. His voice is good enough for ensemble singing, but when alone or in a duet, he doesn’t possess the vocal strength or sense of pitch required of a leading man. When the songs are upbeat and funny, Bellows’ voice is fine, but during slower songs, the show’s momentum falters. I could actually hear the collective rustle of audience members flipping through their programs. It’s too bad, because Bellows is a great performer in every other way.
One performer does not a musical make, but Tisto Chapman as the runaway slave Jim suffers the same vocal weakness as his co-star, plus a tendency to stray off the beat. Hopefully, with a little more work with vocal coach Jackie Maye, Bellows and Chapman can tighten up their sounds. I’d also encourage the orchestra to quiet down a bit so that the actors’ voices don’t get lost amid the music—a far too common problem in local musicals, I’ve noticed.
That said, the majority of Big River was fun to watch, and some parts of the production were an absolute blast. Things got off to a good start with “The Boys,” sung by Tom Sawyer (Bryan Greene) and his gang, and it just got better with the goofy down-home lyrics of “Guv’ment” and “Hand for the Hog.”
Joseph Blaine cracked me up with his rendition of “Arkansas,” a song that might have made many of us think twice about voting for Bill Clinton. Phillip Harriman and Rodney Hurst steal the show at the end of the first act as the morally challenged con artists King and Duke, and they’re easily the most enjoyable characters on stage. Echo Olsen is phenomenal as Mary Jane Wilkes, blowing everyone away with her gorgeous voice.
I’d also like to give a special round of applause to the group of actors playing the slaves. They infused “The Crossing” with such heartbreaking sorrow that it was painful to watch. Much of the credit goes to Jessica Vann and Stephanie Tau, who both have wonderful, soulful voices. But it wouldn’t have had nearly as much of an impact without the movements developed by choreographers Gina Hill and Marty Lewis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a powerful interpretation of misery.
Big River has a lot going for it, despite problems with some of the singing. Now that opening night is behind them, I wish the cast and crew many more full houses and rounds of applause.