Writer VARIETY Big River report
January 25-31, 1989

Sydney 'Big River' pulls notices, fast early biz

Tuner should encourage hit-hungry legit trade;
needs 73% to recoup over 12-week span


Sydney Much was riding on the opening night of "Big River," not only the future of producer Gordon/Frost Organization, but the well-being of Sydney's, perhaps Australia's, commercial theater industry.

Gordon/Frost, with exec producer Essington Entertainment, has by all indications delivered the much-needed goods to ensure a strong run for the Roger Miller-William Hauptman musical, and boost the confidence of other producers preparing shows for 1989.

The $A1.8-million Aussie "Big River," a faithful reproduction of the 1985 Broadway winner of seven Tonys, bowed Jan. 7 at Her Majesty's Theater and the consensus was that the show is a winner. Not since the Sydney bow of "Les Miserables," in 1987, has an opening night inspired such praise. Reviews have been glowing, particularly that from the Sydney Morning Herald's H.G. Kippax, whose "highly recommended" ensures b.o. interest.

Essington's Barry Coleman says the Sydney engagement of 12 weeks will need 73% capacity to recoup, with a weekly gross of around $A380,000. Advance on opening (not all cash) was $A1.5million. Cash sales on the day reviews were published was $A50,000.

As with "Les Miz," it's an unashamed, high-quality clone of the original. Michael Greif, director of the 1986-87 "Big River" U.S. national tour, as well as the Japanese production, staged the show here. Heidi Landesman's wonderfully evocative set and Patricia McGouny's costumes are also reproduced.

The other major American import is Michael Edward-Stevens, who plays the slave Jim, as he did in the U.S. touring version. Edward-Stevens' dignity and poise, matched with his booming, soulful voice, dominate the show.

He's joined by one of the most appealing, crowd-pulling lead casts ever assembled for a musical Down Under — eclectic and magical — and ultimately all share the spotlight.

Any doubts within the industry to the relevance of "Big River" and its Americanness in Australia have been dispelled. Apart from proving the timelessness of Mark Twain's story, there are obvious moral links between the plight of the American slaves last century and the racism problems in Australia today. But the greatest relevance has to be the smiles "Big River" plants on the faces of those in the audience.

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