Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Theater Review—“Big River” Returns via Encores

Big River—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Book by William Hauptman; music & lyrics by Roger Miller; directed by Lear deBessonet
Performances February 8-12, 2017
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch in Big River (photo: Joan Marcus)

Premiering in 1985 on Broadway—where it won several Tonys, including Best Musical—and returning in 2003—revived by Deaf West Theatre—Big River doesn’t seem the usual kind of reclamation project at which Encores excels. But in Lear deBessonet’s lively staging, this tuneful musical based on Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn remains engaging and thought-provoking.

There will be carping about using the “n” word to describe Jim, Huck’s fellow traveler down the river—but Jim is an escaped slave and those using the epithet are whites with ties to the South’s “peculiar institution.” Although deBessonet doesn’t skimp on what audiences find uncomfortable a century and a half later, she never gets bogged down in a heavy-handed “message.”

Instead, the focus is on the relationship between Huck and Jim, by turns dramatic and funny, and tough-minded and sentimental, complemented nicely by Roger Miller’s score, a collection of sturdy, alternately rousing (“River in the Rain”), emotional (“Worlds Apart”) or spiritual (“How Blest We Are”) songs that hit on gospel, country, bluegrass and even rockabilly. In the leads, Nicholas Barasch’s delightful Huck and Kyle Scatliffe’s powerful Jim are worthy companions and even adversaries; both men sing beautifully, but it’s Scatliffe who mesmerizes during the show-stopping “Free at Last.”

In the supporting roles of The King and The Duke—who board Huck and Jim’s raft, take over their lives, and sell Jim back into slavery—David Pittu and Christopher Sieber again show why they are among today’s best comic actors. There’s lovely singing by Adrianna Hicks, Katherine A. Guy and Patrice Covington in their soulful solo turns, while the Encores Orchestra and music director Rob Berman provide the often fiery playing.

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