NOTICE: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot. By order of the author Mark Twain.
That’s written on a large board in calligraphy and is briefly suspended over the stage at the beginning of the show. In the background is a black and white projection of the Mississippi River that’s shown throughout the production. The ensemble, in their rustic outfits, is in view as well as The New York City Center Encores! Orchestra, under the virtuoso direction of Rob Berman and they’re all always visible. The exuberant overture is played, as the cast moves around, and the show is off to a rollicking start.
Red-haired, animated and engagingly boyish, 18-year-old Nicholas Barasch is sensational as Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Barasch is onstage virtually the entire time and winningly carries the show.
As Jim, the runaway slave, Kyle Scatliffe brings dignity, forcefulness and powerful vocal ability during his commanding performance.
David Pittu and Christopher Sieber veer from hilarity to menace as the two con men Huck Finn encounters. Gloriously posing as a British duke and The King of France, they have a couple of rousing song and dance numbers.
Charlie Franklin is a marvelously impish All American Boy as Tom Sawyer. Annie Golden and Cass Morgan gleefully appear as several of the old lady characters that are encountered. Wayne Duvall is a chilling Pap Finn.
Portraying a variety of other characters are the excellent company members, Stephen Lee Anderson, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Mike Evariste, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Tom Nelis, Horace V. Rogers, and Lauren Worsham.
Besides achieving these strong performances, director Lear deBessonet vigorously integrates all of the production’s elements into a compelling presentation. This is complemented by Josh Rhodes’ expressive and joyous choreography.
Allen Moyer’s scenic design brilliantly renders the settings with creative simplicity. Paul Miller’s bold lighting design accentuates all of the light-heartedness and drama with appropriate effects. There’s a beautiful sequence with Huck and Jim on a raft at night, the darkness is mingled with stars that are bits of shiny glass on strings.
Scott Lehrer’s sound design is perfectly modulated. The homespun costume design by Jess Goldstein vibrantly captures the 19th century American time period.
Twain’s novel was published in 1884, and was a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Set in 1830’s Missouri, the story tells of the free-spirited, and 14-year-old Huckleberry Finn is newly rich from his recent schemes with his friend Tom Sawyer.
Huck has been placed under the guardianship of the stern Widow Douglas who lives with her sister, Miss Watson. He struggles against their rigidity. After his shiftless, violent alcoholic father turns up to claim Huck and the money, he runs away with Miss Watson’s African-American slave, Jim. The duo set off on a series of picaresque adventures down the river on the way to Cairo, Illinois.
The work is known for its lack of sentimentality, harsh language, cultural stereotypes and most controversially, for the use of racial slurs. The musical faithfully represents the tone and language of the novel.
This concert production has an adaptation by Rocco Landesman of playwright William Hauptman’s book. It’s a masterful treatment that briskly reinvents Twain’s story for the stage. Huckleberry Finn secretly watching his own funeral is just one of the highlights that have been skillfully retained.
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opened on Broadway in 1985, to critical acclaim and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for 1005 performances. The 2003 Deaf West Theatre Company Broadway revival for the Roundabout Theatre Company, featuring deaf and hearing actors, ran for 67 performances.
The enduring popularity of the show is a testament to Roger Miller’s accomplished score. Mr. Miller died in 1992, at the age of 56. Miller was a popular country music songwriter and performer, perhaps best known for his hit song “King of the Road.” Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was his first and only score for Broadway. It’s a highly enjoyable collection of tuneful compositions with precise lyrics, ranging from character songs, ballads to production numbers all with a twang.
It’s more than done justice by this very energetic Encores! revival.
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (February 8 – 12, 2017)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission