The Encores! production of “Big River” is a pleasant enough confection but with a bitter aftertaste. To understand why, it helps to know that, when he was 11 years old, Samuel Clemens discovered the mutilated corpse of a man named Noriam Todd – an escaped slave who had been hunted down and killed.
Four decades later in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain gave a happy ending for an escaped slave named Jim, who stays alive and is even legally set free, after he and Huck ride a raft through one adventure after another down the Mississippi. But there is arguably an undercurrent in the novel of outrage, albeit cloaked in irony, which makes it far more than a boys adventure story. Mark Twain is sly about this depth, posting a “Notice” in the frontispiece of the novel, which is also a sign over the stage before “Big River” begins at New York City Center: “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 in it will be shot.”
Under Lear deBessonet’s direction, the revival of “Big River” focuses on the humor and rowdy fun of the only musical ever written by Roger Miller, best known for his country hit King of the Road, but a surprisingly eclectic songwriter. As rendered by a large, talented cast and a ten-piece orchestra of the usual Encores! caliber (including a twangy harmonica), Miller’s score holds up, a mix of honky tonk, bluegrass, rousing gospel and Miller’s signature novelty songs, such as Hand for the Hog, sung by Tom Sawyer. Sample verse:
Well, I always heard but ain’t too sure
That a man’s best friend is a mangy cur
I kinda favor the hog myself
How ‘bout a hand for the hog
But “Big River” also uses a racial slur more than half a dozen times. This is not unusual these days in New York theater, as I wrote this week in an essay for HowlRound, The N-word on Stage. But, as actor and playwright Jordan Cooper points out in that essay, “you shouldn’t use it without understanding its weight.”
This did not strike me as a weighty enough production, even though there are plenty of lines in “Big River” (many of which librettist William Hauptman took directly from the novel) that use irony to point to the pervasive racial bigotry of the times. Addressing the audience directly, Huck talks of a troubled conscience for helping Jim, saying he knows the right thing would be to turn him in, but he just can’t help himself. When Jim talks about his children, whom he hopes to buy back from slavery, Huck observes as an aside to the audience: “It don’t sound natural, but Jim cared for his people just as much as white folks do for their’n.”
These lines should land harder than they do. Part of the problem may be Nicholas Barasch’s portrayal of Huck. Barasch, a red-headed 18-year-old, was terrific last year as the naïve and eager bike messenger in She Loves Me. He has a good voice, and is destined to be a go-to juvenile for a few years, until he becomes a go-to leading man. But his Huck is too bland, with little of the mischievous schemer in his eye, and rambunctious misfit in his manner. He’s as charming, cheerful and appealing as the musical.
Kyle Scatliffe (Les Miserables, The Color Purple) is a fine and powerful Jim.
Katherine A. Guy has a show-stopping number in “How Blest We Are,” all the more impressive because this is her professional stage debut. But she hardly exists other than that song.
The black characters are largely the extras in this story, pushed aside even by the comic relief. Rocco Landesman, credited for “concert adaptation” (and the producer of the original Broadway show) has altered the text to place an inordinate focus on the two clownish con men and scoundrels, The King and The Duke performed by the admittedly adept performers David Pittu and Christopher Sieber.
When Encores! began in 1994, the point of the concert series was reportedly to give a second chance to rarely heard, commercially unsuccessful Broadway musicals – whose books maybe made them sink, but whose scores were worth a listen. The criteria must have changed, because “Big River” was successful when it debuted in 1985, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for three years. And it is far from rarely heard. There was a Deaf West revival on Broadway in 2003, which went on national tour starting the next year. The City Center production is just one of 14 within the next few months alone planned throughout the country, from the Slow Burn Theatre Company of Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Old Lyric Repertory Company of Logan, Utah.
Clearly, the show remains popular, although the world has changed since 1885, when “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in the United States, and New York seems to have changed almost as much just since 1985, when “Big River” debuted on Broadway; there’s less tolerance for a show that serves its indictment of racism as a side dish.
It’s also worth pointing out that the “Encores! concert series” has also changed. It no longer seems like a concert series. “Big River” was performed in full costume, ample if simple set (albeit shared with the orchestra), choreography, and with everyone having fully memorized their lines: Performers used to carry their scripts during the show, which was a kind of Encores! signature.
New York City Center
Music and lyrics by Roger Miller; Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain; Choreography by Josh Rhodes; Directed by Lear DeBessonet. Musical director: Rob Berman. 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
Cast: Stephen 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 Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, David Pittu, Christopher Sieber and Lauren Worsham
Big River runs just through Sunday, February 12, 2017