Academy’s ‘Big River’ enormously entertaining

Las Vegas Academy Theatre’s "Big River," a Tony Award-winning Roger Miller musical based on Mark Twain’s "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," exhibits plenty of remarkable talent .

But that doesn’t explain why director John Morris’ show packs such an emotional punch. I found the answer in Morris’ own comments: "I know how irritating really sentimental dreck can be. And I think the best thing about ‘Big River’ — even after all the tall tales, heavy coincidences and improbable plot — is that through it all it is unflinchingly unsentimental."

Bull’s-eye. This enormously entertaining version gets you in the palm of its hand without overwhelming you with easy tears. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Morris deliver such a moving production with such a no-nonsense attitude.

As I hope most of us know, Twain’s story is about a boy who grows from a naive child into a responsible adult. His world view is widened when he travels down the Mississippi with a runaway slave.

Even though the performers are well-trained, I think their major asset here is confidence. Nearly all — including chorus members — seem to be saying to the audience, "Watch me. I’m fascinating."

Taylor Laws is such a good ol’ boy as Huck, he immediately wins you over. He makes you want to follow his adventures. Robert Riordan as a flamboyant con artist has the kind of bigger-than-life presence that makes his over-the-top character believable. Sierra Swope, as the simple "Strange Woman," delivers, in a short scene, a beautifully played character rich in understatement. Kara Overlien, as a grieving daughter, demonstrates a sensitive singing voice, combined with solid dramatic skills. And Casey Andrews proves an effortless scene stealer as Tom Sawyer .

Patrick Weaver’s frequently floating set design keeps things simple but appealing. The technical aspects (including Morris’ lights) are expert but never upstage the characters.

I’m not sure I could trust anyone who didn’t love this production. It’s a joyful, communal, irresistible experience that earns your goodwill.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat @aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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