'Big River': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
The cast of 'Big River'
This enjoyable production does full justice to the terrific country/gospel-flavored score.

Encores! delivers a revival of the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical based on Mark Twain's 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' featuring a score by the late Roger Miller.

Since New York City Center’s Encores! generally has a mandate for dusting off forgotten or neglected musicals, Big River would not have seemed a likely choice for them to produce. The 1985 Tony Award-winning musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was given a 1993 Broadway revival by the Deaf West Theater, and has long been a staple on the regional theater circuit. But despite the show’s relative familiarity, the production being presented for an all-too-limited engagement justifies its existence with its winning exuberance, terrific performances and the top-flight musicianship of its onstage 10-piece orchestra conducted by Rob Berman.

Rocco Landesman, one of the show’s original producers, has provided a streamlined concert adaptation of William Hauptman’s book that keeps the episodic storyline flowing as smoothly as the Mississippi River, a dioramic image of which serves as the set’s backdrop. But the show’s strength has always been the terrific score by the late Roger Miller (best known for his hit single “King of the Road”), which combines country, pop, gospel and bluegrass into a smoothly melodic whole.

Although mostly light-hearted, the show doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of its literary inspiration, particularly the liberal use of the N-word. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this production had gone the politically correct route and toned things down. But it thankfully retains the sometimes shocking language that is all the more gasp-inducing delivered in this context.

Nicholas Barasch, who made such a vivid impression in the recent Broadway revival of She Loves Me, makes for a suitably endearing Huck. Kyle Scatliffe’s commanding physicality and powerful pipes infuse moving dignity into his portrayal of the runaway slave Jim. Broadway veterans Christopher Sieber and David Pittu employ an endless array of comic wiles as The Duke and The King, the traveling con artists who become Huck’s traveling companions. The terrific ensemble also includes such standouts as Wayne Duvall, as Huck’s drunken father, whose rendition of the comic number “Guv’ment” is a highlight; Cass Morgan and Annie Golden as the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson respectively; Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) as a winsome Mary Jane Wilkes; and Katherine A. Guy, who stops the show cold with the soaring gospel song “How Blest We Are.”

Director Lear deBessonet provides a lively staging, with the performers, uncharacteristically for Encores!, entirely off book. Allen Moyer’s simple but effective set design mainly consists of movable wooden platforms, with Jess Goldstein’s costumes supplying the proper period atmosphere.

Miller’s tuneful score holds up beautifully, with such stirring numbers as “Muddy Water” and “Waiting for the Light to Shine” having the feel of standards. It’s superbly delivered by the orchestra, which features invaluable contributions by John Foley on harmonica/mouth harp and Martha McDonnell on fiddle … excuse me, violin.

All in all, this is a Big River that deserves to flow on much longer.  

Venue: City Center, New York City
Cast: Stephanie Lee Anderson, Nicholas Barasch, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Wayne Duvall, Mike Evariste, Charlie Franklin, Annie Golden, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Inante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, Christopher Sieber, Lauren Worsham
Music & lyrics: Roger Miller
Book: William Hauptman
Director: Lear deBessonet
Musical director: Rob Berman
Choreographer: Josh Rhodes
Scenic designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Paul Miller
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert adaptation: Rocco Landesman
Orchestrations: Steven Margoshes, Danny Troob
Presented by New York City Center Encores!