Huck & Tom: And the Mighty Mississippi
A Theater Review (& some other thoughts) by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, RVA 23230
Performances: January 25 – March 3, 2019
Ticket Prices: Start at $21
Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org
The latest production of the Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn is Huck & Tom and the Mighty Mississippi, a collection of short adventures from Mark Twain’s books about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The production is adapted from the works of Mark Twain, with book and lyrics by Peter Howard, and music and lyrics by Ron Barnett. Colorful and lively, with a few pleasant songs, some period costumes (Becky’s is especially pretty), and creative use of crates to change scenes (the cemetery was quite inspired), this production is recommended for ages 6-12 but is probably best suited for the higher end of this age range, through middle school.
James Hendley and Joel White share good chemistry as Tom and Huck, respectively, with Caitlin Sneed bringing balance as Aunt Polly and Rachel Jones as an adorable Becky. Alvan Bolling II rounds out the cast as Jim.
Throughout the show, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, characters remind one another and the audience that there isn’t enough time to tell the entire story and encourage audience members to check out the books from their libraries to find out the rest of the story. David Tousley’s set, which includes movable fences, a raft, and the aforementioned crates, includes a background of fencing and gigantic books.
I always like the program for the children’s productions. One side is a frameable poster keepsake, and the other contains all the usual program information. This one includes “Five Fun Facts” about the author and his books, such as Mark Twain’s real name, a nautical term named for Twain, Twain’s early jobs, and some facts about the Mississippi River. In keeping with this theme, I will offer five observations about this production.
One. First, let me defer to my panel of experts: Kingston and Nicole, both age 10, and Emmitt, age 4. Emmitt said he liked “everything” but was not able to offer any details. Kingston and Nicole also said they liked everything, but given that they are in double digits, I couldn’t let them get away with that. Nicole then offered that she found it confusing with one actor just fell down on the floor when the narrator said he’d been shot in the leg. An audible “bang,” she and Kingston agreed, would have made it better. When I asked them how they felt about Huck trying to decide whether to turn in Jim for the runaway slave reward and save himself or to help Jim escape to freedom, neither of them was mature enough to have fully grasped the gravity of the situation. Most of the audience was probably in the 4-10 year age range, so I’m not sure many of them grasped the significance of this dilemma.
Two. Throughout the production, young audience members were urged to read the books for themselves. Most if not all raised their hands when they were asked if they liked to read. I wonder how many of the parents present are aware that these beloved classics are among the most frequently banned books in the USA? Mostly because in the original texts there is liberal use of the word “nigger,” as Jim is referred to as Nigger Jim. Is this something you want to discuss with your elementary school child?
Three. Kingston was able to relate to some of the historical references, remembering that they had been covered in his fourth grade SOLs. So, kudos for making theater both educational and entertaining, and finding connections with what the kids are learning in school.
Four. Emmitt, age 4, is usually completely enthralled by theater, especially if there is music involved. But this time he was ready to leave about halfway through.
Five. Huck & Tom is a colorful, lively production, with lots of visual interest, movement, and energetic performances by its cast of five, and is well-directed by Kikau Alvaro. Based on my experience, it is best suited for children ten or older, and should be accompanied by sort of discussion. This production is a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, and the suggested faith connection is “growing up,” which is linked to the scripture Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Depending on the age and maturity of the child, and the personal beliefs of the family, there are so many directions this discussion could take.
Sensory Friendly Performances
A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html
Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays
Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday
Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten