Review: Utah Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Big River’ and ‘The Foreigner’ are must-see theater

L-R: Rob Riordan as Huckleberry Finn and Ezekiel Andrew as Jim in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of "Big River" | Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News/Cedar City News

REVIEW  Two of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s current productions, “The Foreigner” and “Big River,” feel perfectly timed as they both celebrate humanity and provide an entertaining respite from a world that often feels harsh and divisive.

The Foreigner

Michael Doherty as Charlie Baker in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 production of “The Foreigner” | Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News/Cedar City News

In reality, people can be incredibly kind and compassionate. And funny – very funny. In the case of the side-splittingly hilarious “The Foreigner,” the laughs begin right away as traveling science fiction writer and pathologically shy Charlie (Michael Doherty) arrives at a remote fishing lodge hoping for a relaxing vacation.

He’s dropped off by his friend, military demolitions expert Froggy (Chris Mixon), who hopes to assuage Charlie’s people-phobia by telling lodge owner Betty (Colleen Baum) that his friend is from an exotic country and doesn’t speak or understand English.

Of course, the plan backfires, with Charlie becoming the centerpiece of nonstop laughter resulting from his supposed inability to understand what’s being said. His attempts to communicate with various lodge guests reveal more about our guests than expected, and more about ourselves than we might want to admit – there is an ominous plot twist.

The detail in physical comedy, particularly from Doherty, is spellbinding, rarely slipping into contrived farce, and the purposeful blocking by director Vincent J. Cardinal is constantly engaging and completely worthy of the immaculate set designed by Jason Lajka.

”The Foreigner” is a well-traveled comedy, but the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s relentlessly entertaining production may be the best version you’ll see.

Big River

While there’s plenty of comedy in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “Big River,” the musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the show is a triumph for its beautiful insight into the world of Huck and slave Jim and their lively hijinks while rafting down the Mississippi River together.

The fabulously original music, courtesy of legendary songwriter Roger Miller, is filled with his penchant for folksy novelty and soaring, poignant lyrics and melody. In particular, the songs “Muddy Water,” “Worlds Apart” and “How Blest We Are,” sparkle with gospel-infused Americana spirit. Listen closely and you’ll hear not just the ache of a slave’s bondage but the bridge to brighter days that true friendship can provide.

Rob Riordan (Huck) and Ezekiel Andrew (Jim) offer performances that are simply stunning in every respect. Just try to remain seated during the booming exhilaration of Andrew’s “Free at Last” – it won’t be easy.

While Michael Doherty’s Tom Sawyer is a little too mature, as are the rest of the boys for Twain’s preteen characters, director Melissa Rain Anderson does a fabulous job of balancing the comedy with the stark imagery required of William Hauptmann’s script.

“Big River” is one of my favorite shows of all time and one I’ve seen on countless stages. You don’t want to miss the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s version of this moving, timeless and timely musical.

Play details

  • What: Utah Shakespeare Festival’s “The Foreigner” and “Big River.”
  • When: “Big River” runs various nights through Sept. 1; “The Foreigner” through Oct. 13.
  • Where: Randall L. Jones Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 299 West Center St., Cedar City.
  • Tickets: $20-$79, with discounts for groups, students, locals and seniors. Purchase tickets by calling 800-PLAYTIX (800-752-9849) or online at the Utah Shakespeare Festival website.

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