New York City Theater
“Big River” (Encores!)
N. Y. City Center
America’s vision of itself is of the “Good Bad Boy” who is “crude and unruly in his beginnings, but endowed by his creator with an instinctive sense of what is right.” So writes Leslie A. Fiedler in his “Love and Death in the American Novel,” picking Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” as not only epitomizing that vision but “our greatest book.”
Imagine the challenge, then, of putting such an “astonishingly complicated novel” on stage. That “Big River,” the musicalized version of “Huck Finn” comes across as well as it does is something of a miracle. Although the novel’s wit and irony remain underdeveloped, although the show replicates the novel’s episodic nature, robbing it of a compact, complex dramatic line, the stage work has been fashioned with integrity.
At the essential City Center Encores! series, the revival of the 1985 Tony winner has its virtues intact, its drawbacks minimized. Roger Miller’s milk-fed country and gospel music and lyrics are pleasant though not always fully integrated into William Hauptman’s sketchy libretto. But the score is beautifully served by music director Rob Berman and his orchestra, featuring fiddle, guitar and harmonica.
The story delineates Huck’s journey from childhood to maturity. Running away from home, breaking familial ties, recklessly rafting on the Mississippi with the runaway slave Jim as his unlikely friend and mentor, meeting and outwitting scoundrels, falling in love, hooking up with his old buddy and fellow schemer, Tom Sawyer, Huck journeys into darkness before emerging into the light.
“Human beings can be awful cruel to each other,” he discovers. His moral reactions surprise even him, but he’s not out to change the world, lest it change him. His first line is “You don’t know about me,” an invitation to dig behind his mischievous side. He ends with “I reckon I got to light out for the territory,” going out West to avoid those who would “sivilize” him.
His closest tie is to Jim who is searching for family and freedom. Through their relationship, Huck learns to trust his individual heart over society’s prejudices. “It don’t sound natural,” says Huck, “but Jim cared as much for his people as white folk cared for theirs.”
If that were all, we might see the work as naïve and outdated. The stage version glosses over themes of death, filial conflict or the eternal American battle between individualism and society. But the essence is there: Instead of all this knowledge adding up to acceptance, Huck remains a rebel, an individual postponing respectability and responsibility.
That dichotomy comes across in the appealing performance by Nicholas Barasch as Huck. (Full disclosure: Barasch is my great-nephew.) From first to last, Barasch is a boy divided: his mind pulls him one way, his heart another.
As Jim, Kyle Scatliffe is noble without being sappy, wise without being pedantic. His and Barasch’s voices blend with such exactitude in “Muddy Water” and ”River in the Rain” that they truly become one, slave and master, man and boy, teacher and pupil. Scatliffe’s rousing “Free At Last” echoes Martin Luther King, Jr.
Under Lear deBessonet’s vigorous direction, the cast doubles and triples with alacrity. Lauren Worhsam is a lovely, romantic Mary Jane, while Katherine A. Guy raises the roof with “How Blest We Are.”
David Pittu as the maniacal King and Christopher Sieber as the mentally-challenged Duke are hilariously excessive. Their comic perfidy is a fit mirror image to Huck’s serious moral awakening. The duality of Twain’s tale may not be fully realized, but the symbiotic relationship between the white boy and the black man is there for all to ponder.
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 16, 2017