It seemed like an event that would pass pleasantly and without much brouhaha. Encores opened their 23rd season with a remounting of Big River, the Roger Miller / William Hauptman musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn. If there was any surprise in the choice, it’s that Encores, though their mission has shifted over time, is still known for rescuing lesser-known shows. Big River is relatively recent (1985), had a long run (1,005 performances), and won a handful of Tonys. It’s also been revived—brilliantly—in a production by Deaf West.
But if it seemed like an unchallenging choice, who would begrudge the Encores’ folks, who later this year are undertaking two major reconstructions (Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers, and Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s The Golden Apple)? They’ve earned an easy success, which is what I expected.
I certainly did not expect a controversy—but that’s just what arose when Encores’ Artistic Director Jack Viertel took significant and very public exception to the New York Times’ basically favorable Big River review. (I won’t try to summarize it, but the details on both sides can be found on Playbill.com.)
Reading through this, I wondered what Viertel would make of my own reaction to Big River, especially its quality as an adaptation. Remembering that reviewed the Deaf West production twice—on Broadway, and when the tour played Philadelpha—I looked up what I had written. Here’s the gist:
The musical itself has some flaws, notably a kind of Reader’s Digest approach to Twain’s novel that softens the book’s thrillingly rough edges… Huckleberry Finn is, of course, both a boy-book and an enduring masterpiece. Roger Miller’s score is terrific at capturing Twain’s impishness, but less successful with his mightiness. Songs like “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain” are catchy and charming, but they don’t begin to evoke the awe and transformative power of Twain’s mighty Mississippi. (To the credit of all involved, though, the difficult racial issues are not softened.)
That’s was my story then, and I’m sticking to it. My sense of Big River hasn’t really changed—I still see it as a sincere, earnest attempt to capture Twain and getting some elements of it right. Roger Miller’s score is probably the show’s biggest asset, but again I like some parts more than others. Though Miller had a reputation for charmingly off-center novelty songs, the ones in Big River—“Guv’ment,” “I, Huckleberry, Me,” “Arkansas”—are too cute. Here, the last was delivered in an exaggerated Southern cracker caricature that was this production’s only real misstep.
For the most part, though, Encores came through with a well-staged but not overly slick version, ably directed by Lear deBessonet. It was a long evening—2 hours 40 minutes, with the book largely intact—but a satisfying one. As so often at Encores, the orchestra was a special pleasure, particularly since they were working in a country-inflected style largely new to them. A competitive riff in the Entr’acte involving guitar, harmonica, and fiddle was the evening’s high point for vitality; in terms of touching the heart, it was the two ensemble songs, “How Blest We Are,” and the reprise of “Waitin’ For the Light to Shine.” And for comedy, David Pittu and Christopher Sieber were superbly paired as the bumbling villains.
Nicholas Barasch was a charmingly brash, accomplished Huck—he can sing, dance, and act, although his performance (and that of Andrew Kruep as Tom Sawyer) had a bit too much musical comedy sparkle. Barasch was most effective in the songs, delivered with likeable simplicity. Kyle Scatliffe was a dramatically moving (if vocally slightly underpowered) Jim. Lauren Worsham sang beautifully as Mary Jane. There was fine supporting work by Cass Morgan, Annie Golden, and others.
Yet it’s the Deaf West production that I keep coming back to—an unforgettable reinvention. Next to that layered, poignant production, this Big River—and most likely any subsequent revival of the original version—lacks a sense of dimensionality and scale.