Taking a trip on the river with Huck Finn at Flint Youth Theater
FLINT, Mich.–The Flint Youth Theater makes the telling of Huck Finn an immersive experience. From the displays in the lobby to Director Janet Haley’s maps in her director’s notes to the musical show before the play begins, everything is designed to take you back to the 1850s South.
The staging works out perfectly for this with the thrust stage built with docks on either side. From the time the audience enters the theater there are actors in period costume surrounding the stage, listening to the music, clapping along and sometimes singing the choruses. The band features keyboard/guitar, bass, banjo, percussion and vocalist/fiddle.
The storytelling style throughout the production moves seamlessly between narration, group chants, music, and traditional acting. In each style, Haley controls the intensity and communicates story, setting and time with an expert hand.
Taken straight from the Mark Twain novel, this Greg Banks adaptation begins at the Widow’s house with the “civilizing” of Huck Finn. It quickly establishes the world he lives in with Tom Sawyer before turning dark with the return of Huck’s Pap who locks him up to try to get the money he and Tom Sawyer earned as a reward. The play descends into the heart of the story as Huck runs away and meets up with Jim, a runaway slave. They take to the Mississippi on a raft and there both their worlds change as they experience adventures together.
Brandon Hart is the high school student who plays Huck Finn. He carries a heavy burden with this show and brings the audience into his world as he goes between narration and interaction with others on stage. He has an enthusiastic innocence about him and the struggles with his conscience are real. He forms a genuine bond with Jim, which is what makes this entire story work.
One of the best performances in the play is put in by LaTroy Childress as Jim. He masters the dialect without it ever becoming jumbled or hard to understand. He speaks clearly and powerfully. His singing is soulful and he ranges from subtle to powerful with his music. He is a genuinely sympathetic character and he connects with the audience and with Huck to raise the stakes of the story.
Together these two ask the questions at the heart of the play. They bring out Jim’s humanity and Huck’s real struggle with what society and the law tell him is right and what he feels his right because of his relationship with Jim and his realization that Jim is more than property, he’s a friend, a husband and a father.
Along the way, they meet an ensemble of characters who support the main duo. Sometimes the ensemble appears in groups and they act as fog or steamboats or the residents of a ranch. They speak in unison and in parts, making an effective, almost musical accompaniment to Jim and Huck’s story.
Brittany Reed is the River Chorus Elder and she leads the chorus of players and often moves the raft about on stage. She is compelling as a storyteller and evokes images of the Greek chorus as she leads the river chorus in their chants.
The raft itself works beautifully as it moves around the stage, going up and down the river and turning in circles. Scenic designer Czerton Lim gets credit for designing a raft that works so perfectly without ever drawing attention to itself except as the all-important home to Huck and Jim.
Throughout the play, live musicians perform original music by Dan Gerics that acts as a soundtrack to the story. Musicians Geric, Mark Gmazel, Annadelie Kimber, and Bary Lehr also leave their instruments at various points in the show to become characters in the show, fulfilling such roles as Huck’s Pa, King, Duke, and Judith Loft. It is done seamlessly and is an effective use of performers in this large-cast show.
Huck Finn is a classic story with themes that continue to resonate well into 2016. Flint Youth Theater captures the story well and is committed to making it a complete experience for its audience. It’s told effectively and is well worth seeing.