“Big River,” the musical version of Mark Twain’s tale of Huck Finn, was revived at the Music Circus (in the Wells Fargo Pavilion theater-in-the-round) last week for the first time since 1994. The production, directed by Michael Heitzman (first time with the company), featured fine performances and was a significant overall upgrade in quality and attention to detail from the season’s disappointing opening production of “My Fair Lady.”
The story follows closely Twain’s classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” wherein Huck leaves friend Tom Sawyer behind to liberate himself from the strict upbringing he was enduring at the hands of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, shortly thereafter to encounter Jim, the house slave who had just run away himself to seek his freedom. The musical tracks the “adventures” of the two, thereby closely paralleling the story from the book, to include the lengthy unwilling “partnership” Huck forms with the two vagabonds who dub themselves the King and the Duke.
At its heart, Twain’s classic is an exploration of racism in the post-Civil War south. Twain’s book was published in 1884, and, remarkably, it is still relevant today, if not for the virulence of the prejudice it depicts, then for the undercurrents of it that remain (albeit the nearly universal abhorrence of the recent mass killing of black parishioners in South Carolina may mark a beginning of a new attitude). The musical contains much of that theme, but it also has its light moments, largely supplied (in the first act especially) by the King and Duke characters.
“Big River” won seven Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1985. The book for the musical is by William Hauptman, and the music and lyrics are credited to Roger Miller, whose compositions, ranging from country to gospel, were surprisingly complex and effective. None of the songs are particularly memorable, but as a whole they stand up well, with several providing highlights in the Music Circus production.
The strong cast was led by Ben Fankhauser in the difficult role of Huck, who serves as both the narrator and the central character. Mr. Fankhauser was solid in the acting and narrating required of him. His singing was also fine, although his voice lacked the power to match that of Phillip Boykin (as Jim), whose bass/baritone was overwhelming in their duets. Mr. Boykin’s voice is a treat to hear (recalling his standout rendition of “Old Man River” in the 2013 Music Circus production of “Showboat”), and he soared on “Free at Last” and in his duets (“Worlds Apart” and “Muddy Water”) with Mr. Fankhauser.
On the subject of standout singers, Jennifer Leigh Warren reprised her role of Alice (from the original Broadway cast), the gospel singer at the funeral in the second act. Her rendition of “How Blest We Are” was another highlight of the production, garnering the most enthusiastic applause on the night we attended.
Others who gave noteworthy performances included Rich Hebert as Pap (offering a humorous “Guv’ment”), William Parry and King and Jeff Skowron as Duke (joining with Mr. Boykin and Mr. Fankhauser on “When the Sun Goes Down in the South”), and Dennis O’Bannion as Young Fool (doing a nice job with “Arkansas,” which he sang from the aisles as a scene was changed on the stage). Also in the cast and enlivening the production were Lizzie Klemperer (Mary Jane Wilkes), James Michael Lambert (Tom Sawyer), Mary Jo Mecca (Widow Douglas) and Angelica Sark (Miss Watson).
A ten member ensemble did nice work with AC Ciulla’s choreography, and Andrew Bryan conducted the ten-piece orchestra. Marcy Froelich designed the costumes, Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf were the scenic designers, Pamila Gray handled the lighting, and Joe Caruso, Jr. and Robert Sereno were responsible for the sound.
In all, this “Big River” was a solid production that was surprisingly timely and meaningful in presenting the issue of racism in the society of the times (then and now).