With its infectious music and heapin' helpin' of comedy, Big River is a broader, somewhat sunnier take on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn penned by the great Mark Twain. But the Tony-winning musical nurtured more than 30 years ago at La Jolla Playhouse is fairly faithful to Twain's classic tale. Big River is big news for Carlsbad's New Village Arts Theatre, which has mounted a crowd-pleasing production of the show written by William Hauptman with lyrics and music by the late Roger ("Dang Me") Miller. Big River is also a big sit, lasting well over two and a half hours, but it's largely time well spent.
Director Colleen Kollar Smith's cast is highlighted by Bryan Barbarin as Jim, the slave longing to be free, with Reed Lievers as a winning, if too well-scrubbed, Huck. Spouses Manny and Melissa Fernandes practically take over with their antics as the grifters who scam their way aboard Huck and Jim's raft. But it's Jon Lorenz's musical direction and a rousing six-piece band onstage that could make Twain, at his most cynical, smile.
Big River runs through May 15 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. $44-$47; newvillagearts.org
Nearly 40 years ago from the mind of playwright Bernard Pomerance came the almost unbearably sad story of John Merrick, a real-life grotesquely deformed man possessed of a beautiful soul. From stage to film and back to stage again, The Elephant Man has mesmerized audiences ever since.
The Elephant Man is Backyard Renaissance's second production (following last year's Parlour Song). Its staging at Oceanside's Brooks Theatre in conjunction with Oceanside Theatre Co. is a quietly powerful one, with co-director Fran Gercke (with Christopher Williams) achingly poignant as Merrick. This production eschews scenery in favor of projections that suggest settings and, at the play's beginning, show us the extent of Merrick's deformity. (The play calls for the actor portraying Merrick without prosthetic makeup.) Gercke is supported by a cast of nine doing veddy British, Victorian accents, among them Nick Cagle as the doctor beset by doubt and torment who rescues Merrick from the cruelty of the carny. If the play seems long, that's probably because Merrick's story is so painful.
The Elephant Man runs through April 24 at the Brooks Theatre in Oceanside. $14-$21; backyardrenaissance.com
Jesus Hates Me: The San Diego premiere of Wayne Lemon’s dramedy about a down-on-his-luck ex football player who begins to question his existence after visiting a Christian-themed miniature golf course. Presented by ion theatre, it opens in previews April 16 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
I’m Good: Incarcerated Men Getting Over Obstacles Daily: A staged reading of a new play written by inmates who have participated in the “Out of the Yard” rehabilitation program at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Performed by the San Diego State University School of Theater, Television and Film, it opens for April 20 at the SDSU Experimental Theater in the College Area. playwrightsproject.org