Casa Mañana’s ‘Big River’ is big on talent

Big River

Through Sunday

Casa Mañana, 3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth

7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday



Posted 8:56am on Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013

FORT WORTH — Big River is supposed be all about Huck and Jim.

But Casa Mañana’s production of Roger Miller’s 1985 musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, belongs to Jaston and David.

That’s because veteran performers Jaston Williams, who teamed with Joe Sears in the immortal Greater Tuna series for decades, and the incomparable David Coffee steal this show right off its raft with their portrayals of the scheming Duke and King, respectively — a pair of con artists on the lam whom Huck (Mack Shirilla) and Jim (Alvin Crawford) pick up while making their own flight to freedom.

Williams, wearing only male attire on stage for a change, hams up his creatively conniving character to the full extent that the script and production allow, and the results are pretty amusing. His work is nicely balanced by energetic and forceful performances by Coffee as both Huck’s father, Pap, and the opportunistic King. Few actors can own a stage the way Coffee can. And some outlandish costuming by Tammy Spencer allows both men to sell their oily characters with even greater ease.

The visiting actors playing the leads are also strong. Shirilla is appropriately youthful and game. And Crawford, who has a particularly robust baritone, sings and plays his role well.

There are also a couple of one-shot performances that make an impression. Local talents Simone Gundy, as a soloist at Huck’s premature funeral, and Alison Hodgson, in the tiny role of Mary Jane Wilkes, both have exactly one number. But, in each case, they more than deliver the goods.

Eric Woodall’s direction is extremely broad, giving the production the feel of musicals much older than this one. But, since it’s all based on 19th-century material, being a little corny and a little over the top works just fine. His concept of having the action spring from the reading room of a library is brilliant. It draws the show closer to its literary source and makes a great framing device. Scenic designer Colt Frank deserves a lot of credit for making Woodall’s illuminating vision a reality.

There are a few problems with this show. It is too long and has no real hits. For some, the subject matter may be a bit too familiar.

This is an odd criticism to make, but this production may also be too well cast. There is some incredible talent on the playbill that is almost completely wasted. Julie Johnson (Widow Douglas) and Greg Dulcie (Lafe) act their parts well. But they are two of the best singers who have ever trod the boards at Casa, and they are hardly asked to sing a note in this production.

As good as the leads are, was it really necessary to go out of town to cast them? There are a lot of performers in this area who could also have been impressive in those roles.

So, if anything, this show has a slightly better cast than it needs or deserves. That is a good complaint to be able to make about any show.

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