Reviewed by Judy Richter
Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is considered one of the greatest novels in American literature. Its musical version, "Big River," with the novel's name as its subtitle, doesn't reach an equivalent pinnacle, but it has its virtues.
They become apparent in the TheatreWorks production directed by artistic director-founder Robert Kelley. For one, the excellent cast produces some fine renditions of the music and lyrics by Roger Miller, who has created a score rife with country, blues and spirituals. For another, the cast has fun with some of the situations in the book by William Hauptman, who adapted his script from Twain's novel.
Best of all, there's James Monroe Iglehart, who plays Jim, a runaway slave who shares Huck's adventures as their raft drifts down the Mississippi River from the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Mo. A fine singer, Iglehart is just back from three years in the Broadway production of "Memphis," in which he continued to play the role of Bobby, which he had originated in the world premiere at TheatreWorks. The imposing Iglehart imbues Jim with a dignity and integrity that surpass any other character in the show.
Therefore, the decision by Huck (the appealingly boyish Alex Goley) to help him elude capture becomes both believable and inevitable even though Huck understands that in doing so, he's breaking the law. After all, the action takes place in the early 1840s, when slavery was legal in many states and when slaves were regarded more as property than as human beings.
This theme comes through despite the shenanigans of other characters like Tom Sawyer (Scott Reardon), a decent fellow who nevertheless makes everything too complicated in the name of adventure. The script also spends too much time on two flimflam men, the King (Martin Rojas Dietrich) and the Duke (Jackson Davis), despite the comedic talents of both actors. Except for Iglehart and Goley, nearly everyone else in the large cast plays multiple characters.
While Jim is trying to reach a non-slave state and earn enough money to free his wife and children, from whom he has been separated for several years, Huck is trying to escape his drunken, murderous father, Pap (Gary S. Martinez). The two set off on a raft, drifting by night and sleeping in secluded spots during the day. In one of the more touching scenes, they spot a boat loaded with recaptured slaves, who sing "The Crossing," a sad spiritual.
Music director William Liberatore conducts the singers and the six-member orchestra from the keyboard. The uncluttered set, featuring a backdrop of a winding river, is by Joe Ragey, with lighting by Pamila Z. Gray. The choreography is by Kikau Alvaro, while the costumes are by B Modern and the sound by Jeff Mockus.
"Big River," which premiered on Broadway in 1985, won seven Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. It does have much to commend it, but the source still has greater depth.