Jakara Mato does a fine job in the supporting role of Mary Jane Wilkes in "Big River," at Paliku Theater on the Windward Community College campus.

Actors make splash in
slow-flowing ‘River’

The currents of even the biggest rivers can flow at such uneven speeds that relying on them alone for forward progress can lead to periods of sluggishness and boredom. Paliku Theatre's big-scale production of "Big River" is the third local production of the Broadway musical -- it was staged by Manoa Valley Theatre in 1991 and Army Community Theatre in 2000 -- and director Ron Bright holds it to a slow and stately pace that suggests a languid afternoon in the waning days of summer. Fortunately, however, energetic performances by several of the players help shake off the occasional doldrums.

"Big River," presented by Paliku Theatre, continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 7 at Windward Community College. Tickets are $26, with discounts for military, seniors, students and children. Call 235-7330 or visit the Web site, www.Paliku.com.

First and most important, Sean Jones (Huckleberry Finn) and John Bryan (Jim) prove well-matched in the lead roles. Jones is tall for 13 but keeps his accent in place throughout as the protagonist in this lengthy adaptation of Mark Twain's controversial "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He is believable in the scenes in which Huck ponders aloud the moral conundrum of helping a runaway slave. Jones also succeeds in making several pivotal musical numbers welcome stops along the way.

Bryan deftly blends dignity and vulnerability in his portrayal of the slave who teaches Huck several important lessons about friendship across racial lines. Together they flee a society in which most African Americans are property and calling someone an "abolitionist" is the foulest of insults. Bryan makes the scenes in which Jim is teased by Huck or Tom Sawyer seem particularly cruel.

Bryan and several others in the cast don't always get the support they need from sound board operator Eric Jensen to be heard clearly over the orchestra, but he does a soul-stirring job as the lead voice on "Free at Last," stands out on several other big numbers and deserves credit as well as the show's choral director.

Bryan and Jones are joined by Jakara Mato (Mary Jane Wilkes) in making "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" another great moment. Mato looks fabulous in her black hoop skirt and accouterments and distinguishes herself with her other big number, "You Ought to Be Here with Me," as well. Mato's handling of the scene in which Mary Jane kisses Huck, then appears appalled at her brazenness, is beautifully played.

Tom Holowach and S.D. Wagenseller make a perfect pair of rascals as the con men who style themselves as the Duke of Bridgewater and "King Louie the 17th" respectively.

Alison Maldonado, a veteran of the ACT production, stops this "Big River" as she stopped that one when she is featured in "Crossing to the Other Side." Director Bright has wisely given Maldonado the role of the Wilkes' maid as well, and she gives one of the most impressive performances in the entire show -- "How Blest We Are."

Children are often scene-stealers simply by virtue of being young and cute, but Maldonado's 2-year-old daughter, Emily-Kim Maldonado, performs with the focus and awareness of a much older child in several scenes. Emily-Kim even enhances the final curtain calls.

Clarke Bright and his musicians do well by Roger Miller's country-lite score and Lloyd S. "Sandy" Riford III provides both a solid and substantial set and dramatic lighting effects.

Ghislaine Sopher-Phillips (Widow Douglas), Tracy Yamamoto (Miss Watson), Enola Mutch (Strange Woman) and Richard T. McWilliams (Mark Twain) contribute effective performances in secondary roles, but several other key players come up short. David Johnson (Pap Finn) makes a serviceable villain, but lacks the range and character shadings that Jim Hutchison brought to ACT's version; Kristopher De La Cruz delivers "Arkansas" as a shallow and superficial ode rather than as a sardonic expression of Twain's contempt for the great uneducated masses he grew up with; and Russ Pederson plays Tom Sawyer as a gangly, simple-minded dolt rather that a savvy kid smart enough to trick others into painting a fence for him.

But with Jones and Bryan as the leads, and Holowach, Wagenseller and Mato first and foremost among the rest of the cast, fans of "Big River" will find Bright's staging worth the price of a ticket for another trip down the river.

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