Fifty or so years ago Berkeley Farms, a milk company, drew lots of attention with its slogan: “Farms? In Berkeley?” The slogan comes to mind after absorbing the rich, varied and professional-level production of “Big River,” by Magic Circle Theatre of Roseville.
Theater? In Roseville? “You betcha!” as Sarah Palin might say. For those of us awed by the quality of theater in downtown Sacramento, the idea that there could be something comparable in Old Roseville never crosses most of our minds. But those familiar with Magic Circle know better. You need to arrive early if you expect to find a convenient parking place.
The Roseville Theatre itself, companion to the Tower Theatre, is remarkable in itself. A refurbished vaudeville theater with a complex stage and capacious orchestra pit, it’s a tourist sight in itself, complete with lavish refreshment bar. It’s also ideally suited to the musical “Big River,” inspired by Mark Twain’s classic novel “Huckleberry Finn.” With music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, the show won seven Tony Awards. It opened on Broadway in 1985 and ran for 1,000 performances.
The story revolves around Twain’s original premise, with Huck (Kirk Lawson) helping Jim (Ryan Allen), an escaping slave, get to safety on a river raft. It also includes many of the original characters, like Tom Sawyer (Nick Adorno), plus The King (Bob Hayes) and The Duke (Joel Porter), a pair of phonies pretending to be Shakespearean actors and royalty. But it goes well beyond the novel set to music, though it includes 21 numbers with 17 songs.
Over all, the show has a kind of unearthly charm, like a fairy tale, despite the ugliness of slavery, racism and bigotry. Much of its effect has to do with imaginative direction by Brent Null, who teamed with John Bowles to create an evocative set. One imaginative touch is a transparent gray drop, at first seemingly invisible but making the small bridge and the raft behind it look like paintings on a huge flat. Well into the play the drop lifts and we realize that what’s behind it is three dimensional.
Another eerie effect comes from a pair of black actors, mainly the male, who stand at the stage’s sides and silently mouth the words other actors sing, meanwhile interpreting the messages through hand gestures. Lawson, Allen and Adorno provide the most powerful male voices, along with Nick Garcia as a “young fool.” Outstanding among the female voices are Katie Robberecht, Elizabeth Funk, and Elizabeth Poore as the three Wilkes women, and Danyelle Finch as Alice’s daughter.
They’re supported by a strong orchestra with eight musicians, including three who perform intermittently on stage as a small country group: Nikki Alvarez (fiddle), John Clevenger (harmonica) and John Harmon (banjo). Credit also goes to Jennifer Vaughn (musical director), Christi Axelson (choreographer), and Mary Ann Pujals (costumer).
Despite a startling and wild appearance by The Royal Nonesuch (Joel Porter) toward the end, and some tension around a corpse in a casket, the ending seems to drag a bit, as if the script was squeezing all the juice out of the show. But that didn’t stop a standing ovation from the audience.
“Big River” continues through October 10 at 241 Vernon Street in Roseville. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $28, with some discounts, and can be purchased at the box office. They’re also available at (916) 782-1777 or online at http://www.mcircle.org/.