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theater: Twain 101

Theatre IV's latest is a charming tribute to one of America's greatest authors.


Launching the production with a rousing number, "Read Me a River," the cast makes it clear "there is not enough time" to cover all the adventures portrayed in Mark Twain's classic novels. Venturing from the format of a conventional musical play, the production falls somewhere between a musical review and a book review — a junior Cliffs Notes with music.

Given fair warning of the educational tone of the show, the audience is invited along on a one-hour river journey with stops at some of Twain's most beloved vignettes.

Against the vast backdrop of Scene Designer Tim McMath's graceful riverscape, we visit Tom Sawyer as he passes the buck (and the brush) while whitewashing. Later, the silhouette of an enormous oak tree looms in the darkness over an ancient graveyard. When the fog rolls in, the eerie mood is captured for the midnight rendezvous of Tom and Huck (with a dead cat). McMath and Lighting Designer Steven Koehler's special effects make for an enchanting ride on the Mississippi as a clever raft floats almost effortlessly upon reflecting waters.

Matthew Millner (Huck) and Chase Kniffen (Tom), do a bang-up job portraying the adventurous and mischievous duo. Their youthful energy comes through loud and clear in song and action. Audra Honaker is charming as Becky Thatcher. Her delightful voice and comic timing can be characterized as just plain "cute." We blush along with her during Tom's proposal. Ruan Woolfolk plays the runaway slave Jim with dignity and a strong spirit. Woolfolk and Millner deliver a powerful reprise of Barnett's memorable song, "Restless River." Performed on an enchanting raft ride, the show-stopping duet is simply way too short.

Director Robin Arthur, who also choreographs the show, makes the best of the unconventional script. Lacking the buildup of suspense in a traditional plot, Arthur manages to incorporate moments of anticipation in two stunning scenes: the graveyard and Jim's river escape. "Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi" is what it — an entertaining invitation to visit the library and read the works of one of America's most cherished authors. S

Theatre IV's "Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi" runs through Feb. 16 at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $16-$18. Call 344-8040.

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