The musical Big River, currently playing at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky, has earned a reputation as an agreeable and fun show since it debuted twenty-five years ago. The Carnegie production boasts a talented cast with two extremely well-suited lead performers, along with solid direction and design.
Big River is a musicalization of Mark Twain's novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The story follows young Huck in pre-Civil War America. Huck is torn between the choices of living a wild, responsibility-free life with his abusive drunken father versus holding to the strict expectations of the townsfolk who have taken him in. The young protagonist also has to deal with his confusion about what is right or wrong in the world. Huck stages his own death so he can seek adventures elsewhere, and he and runaway slave Jim board a raft down the Mississippi. There they find much conflict and great joy as they encounter a slew of unique characters and situations. They also learn a lot about friendship and themselves.
The book for Big River is by William Hauptman. The first act has a considerably stronger narrative than the second act, which tends to meander somewhat. Also, the main storytelling device used is narration, provided by Huck or Mark Twain (also a character). We are too often told what happened rather than shown, but with such a large story to tell, it's acceptable. There's a good deal of effectively written humor and relationship-building dialogue, and the book flows quickly with lots of fun, action, and plenty of conflict. The themes of friendship and freedom (from slavery, abusive fathers, societal expectations) are universal, and the story has lots of social and historical relevance, and a moral conscience.
The score by the late country songwriter Roger Miller contains songs with catchy melodies that are a very good fit to the story. Miller's work includes some very effective spirituals ("The Crossing," "How Blest We Are," "Free At Last") and wonderful anthems and duets for Huck and Jim ("River In the Rain," "Muddy Water"). Huck's spirited "Waitin' For the Light To Shine" (where he longs to know his place in the world) and the plaintive trio "Leavin's Not The Only Way To Go" are also musical highlights. However, the lyrics at times are not up to level of the music, and very few songs really advance the plot. There are a number of comedic songs included as well, but they rarely land with the same punch as the more emotional tunes do. Still, the score is one that audiences will likely go home humming.
Directors Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen provide a strong emotional foundation for the connections between the characters. They're also able to overcome the limitations that come with a small performance space like the Carnegie. Their mostly traditional staging, along with a few brushes of ingenuity ("Hand for The Hog") and apt tone make this a first rate production. Musical Director Brian Hoffman leads a great sounding four-piece, on-stage orchestra.
Zach Steele is extremely endearing as Huck, naturally delivering the role's homespun dialogue and singing with a sweet country-twanged tenor voice. As the slave Jim, Deondra Means provides powerful, soulful vocals, and conveys the necessary dignity, humility, and determination to the role. While each of the remaining thirteen supporting cast members displays talent and well-defined characterizations, Carlyn Connolly (Miss Watson), Michael Carr (Pap/Duke), Taryn Bryant (Alice), Ben Durocher (Tom Sawyer) and Max Chernin (King) provide especially noteworthy performances.
The scenic design by Kristen Robinson features a simple wooden unit set, along with rustic projections which effectively communicate the various locales. The costumes by Diane Carr and lighting by Weston G.Wetzel are skillfully rendered and suitable, and the sound by Hunter Spoede is clear as a bell.
Big River, which won the 1985 Tony Award for Best Musical in what is considered a very weak year, will likely never be considered one the better Best Musical winners. However, the source material and writing provide opportunities for an engaging and entertaining show. The Carnegie Center production is an excellent incarnation of the show, thanks in large part to its two splendid lead performers. Big River continues through September 4, 2010. Visit http://www.thecarnegie.com or call (859) 957-1940 for tickets or more information.