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Big River

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 10, 2017

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch
Photo by Joan Marcus

The scenic backdrop for the City Center Encores! concert of Big River, which is playing through this weekend, is a black-and-white photo of the Mississippi River that's about as expansive and imposing as the Ol' Man himself. But this constant reminder of the majesty one of the United States's greatest waterways proves more of a curse than a blessing to Lear deBessonet's production: It's an omnipresent reminder of just how small everything around it is.

Not that this difficulty isn't baked into the musical itself. Any adaptation of what is perhaps the seminal American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is likely to be found lacking—what, is there to add that Mark Twain, through his first-person perspective on life and racism in the antebellum South and the unflinching voice he used to capture it, didn't already say back in 1884? (Not teaching the novel, or censoring or rewriting it, because of Twain's frequent deployment of the "N-word" suggest we're more interested today in subtraction than we are addition, anyway.) When inexperienced theatre writers William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics) took it on and then took it to Broadway in 1985, "pleasing" is about the most anyone had the right to expect.

Sure enough, pleasing is what we got. Pop-country star Miller (best known for "King of the Road") delivered a few good songs, mostly centered around the runaway Huck and the slave Jim, whom he takes along on his trek: "Muddy Water," which distills the outset of their journey into the guitar-strumming sound of pure adventure; the meditative, evocative "River in the Rain"; and "Worlds Apart," which acknowledges the existential challenges their friendship faces. I would also hasten to add "When the Sun Goes Down in the South," an infectious ballyhoo from the self-styled King and Duke who Huck and Jim meet along the way.

But that's part of the trouble, isn't it? That too much entertainment, especially of the wrong kind, distracts from Twain's violently serious argument about where his country was and where it needed to go. What is any Huck Finn story about, if not that? A more experienced, daring team might have been able to bridge the contradictions; Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern had written what is still the quintessential race-relations musical, not coincidentally also set on the Mississippi, in the luminous Show Boat almost 60 years before. Big River was technically a success (seven Tonys, a 1,005-performance run), but it was a soft one that concretized no history of its own. If this makes any new stab at it tricky—the 2003 Broadway revival was a transfer of a Deaf West production, utilizing both hearing and non-hearing actors in inventive, if not always effective, ways—it would also, in theory, make it a reasonable Encores! property.

Christopher Sieber and David Pittu
Photo by Joan Marcus

As it turns out, though, emphasizing Miller's score only exacerbates the issues that already exist. Rocco Landesman (one of the original production's producers) has crafted the "concert adaptation" of the script, which tightens the focus as much as possible on Huck as the travelogue's narrator. Seizing on this, deBessonet, working on an ultra-spare platform-puzzle set by Allen Moyer, moves the characters and scenes into and out of the action as if on ripples of memory. The rest of the design supports this, as well, with Jess Goldstein's modest costumes and Paul Miller's gentle, subdued lights doing their own part to escort you through this voyage of the mind. Josh Rhodes's choreography, too, has an appealing informal, improvisational quality to match.

DeBessonet ensures everything moves well along these tracks, which helps. But this approach ends up transforming everyone outside the central foursome—Huck (Nicholas Barasch), Jim (Kyle Scatliffe), the Duke (Christopher Sieber), and the King (David Pittu)—into extras rather than integral participants in the narrative. This can make it seem like the only reason to bring on the slave characters is to sing a spiritual or a gospel number (even though, in the second-act installment, "How Blest We Are," Katherine A. Guy acquits herself admirably). Even more than that, it diminishes the atmosphere and culture that are so essential to capturing the most of what Big River can be. It doesn't matter how good Rob Berman's orchestra sounds playing Steven Margoshes and Danny Troob's down-home orchestrations—and it sounds very good, indeed—if it all comes across as literature night at a condemned honky-tonk.

Scatliffe (the recent revivals of Les Misérables and The Color Purple) is an excellent Jim, singing beautifully (he makes the formulaic "Free at Last" into one of the evening highlights) and bestowing a quiet dignity to the part without weighing it down. Sieber and Pittu wield every weapon in their considerable vaudeville-comedian arsenal, and torch the place in the best possible ways. Barasch, late of She Loves Me, is an amiable Huck, but by far the lightest and least charismatic of the principals. The ensemble counts some major talent—Lauren Worsham, Cass Morgan, Annie Golden, and many others—but their impact is negligible. Only Charlie Franklin, in the supporting part of Tom Sawyer, escapes from the background, and then only occasionally—no one is really supposed to care about him, right?

The problem with Big River in general, and this version in particular, is that you don't really care about much else, either. Except, that is, for the Mississippi, which looms so literally and figuratively large that there's no escaping its influence. Maybe deBessonet should have learned another lesson from it: Sometimes there's value in doing something other than just keep rolling along.

Big River
Through February 12
New York City Center Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: