There aren’t many musicals — or at least many good musicals — based on classic works of literature, and for good reason. Musicals, by their nature, are generally compact and linear, without unlimited space for personal meditation and episodic adventures. True, the new musical “Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812” is based on “War and Peace,” but just a small slice of it. The musical theater archives are filled with flops or discarded versions of “Gone with the Wind,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Doctor Zhivago” and so on.
But then there’s “Big River,” an unusual 1985 adaptation of Mark Twain’s sprawling and progressive-thinking opus “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which has a great country-flavored score by the late singer-songwriter Roger Miller. It became a modest hit in its day and received an acclaimed Broadway revival in 2003 by Deaf West Theatre that brought together hearing and non-hearing actors (just like the recent “Spring Awakening” revival).
On a personal note, the “Big River” revival was the first Broadway show I attended as a theater reviewer. Fourteen years later, I find myself re-encountering “Big River” at City Center, where it is receiving a short concert-style revival as the opening act of the new Encores! series. “Big River” is an unusual choice for Encores!, given that it does not require a big orchestra and does not come from Broadway’s golden age. In fact, “Big River” is the newest musical to be produced by Encores! as of this point in its celebrated 24-year history.
The relevance and appropriateness of “Big River” and its source material are open to question in the current political and cultural environment. Both revolve around the institution of slavery, racial prejudice, a complex relationship between a young, carefree, white boy and an adult, black, male slave and include the repeated use of the N-word. In my opinion, both works take on extended relevance today, as seen in Huck’s personal growth and newfound willingness to make his own decisions about morality, in defiance of the law and societal expectations. One can see in Huck the men and women protesting out on the street the policies of the Trump administration. These works also stress how difficult it is for people of different cultures and backgrounds to genuinely understand each other. In the song “Worlds Apart,” the escaped slave Jim sings to Huck, “I see the same stars through my window/That you see through years/But we’re worlds apart.”
The Encores! production proves to be unusually polished, dramatically compelling and often fun and joyful. It is directed by Lear deBessonet, who is best known for spearheading the Public Works series (where professional actors join dozens of community members for mega-spectacles based on Shakespeare plays). The stage is effectively dominated by a panoramic image of the Mississippi River and movable platforms are used to represent the raft on the river and various locations. A score based on the sounds of bluegrass, Americana and gospel is no longer a rarity (i.e. “Bright Star,” “Floyd Collins”), but “Big River” sounds as fresh and flavorful as ever here. (By comparison, the 2003 Broadway revival suffered from having a scaled-down band.)
Eighteen-year-old Nicholas Barasch, who recently appeared in “She Loves Me,” was an inspired, age-appropriate casting choice for Huck Finn. Barasch is laid back, open and sympathetic, an ideal protagonist and narrator. He contrasts nicely with Charlie Franklin’s mischievous and hyperactive Tom Sawyer. Kyle Scatliffe (“The Color Purple”) is also a young choice to play Jim, which adds to the rapport between Huck and Jim compared with the adults around them. Lauren Worsham (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”) is lovely in the small part of Mary Jane Wilkes, and Christopher Sieber and David Pittu provide comic relief as the Duke and King.