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A CurtainUp Review
Big River
Well, I been down to the pain and sorrow
Of no tomorrows comin' in
But I put my pole to the river bottom
And I've got to hide some place and find myself again
Look out for me, oh muddy water

Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch as Jim and Huck (Photo: Joan Marcus)
With a pop songwriter's lively score and a musical revisit to Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Big River opens the 24th City Center Encores! season. Roger Miller's score remains catchy, William Hauptman's script is still packed with adventures and the feeling remains pure Americana. Thinking of the world today, this is both pleasing and troubling.

The original production of Big River opened to low expectations in a weak 1984-85 Broadway season. Yet with Miller's tuneful music and the eye-catching stage design, it went on to win seven Tony Awards and was revived in 2003. The packed book has been somewhat trimmed by producer Rocco Landesman for the Encores! stage. Rob Berman and his orchestra accompany the cast in a concert of music, comedy and adventures, narrated by a delightful Nicholas Barasch as Huck.

Directed by Lear deBessonet, Barasch plays the restless red-headed teenager in antebellum Missouri who is tired of the constraints and demands of his well-meaning adoptive mother. Like the whole town, she nags him to read the Bible, reminding him, "Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?", a rousing company number that fails to rouse Huck. He misses the adventures he had with his old pal, Tom Sawyer and he can't turn to his father, Pap (Wayne Duvall), an abusive drunk, so Huck decides to run away.

Huck heads for the river and meets his adoptive aunt's slave, Jim (Kyle Scatliffe), who is trying to escape. They find a raft and take off. Their journey presents multitude barriers, but most enlightening is the evolution of young Huck's relationship with Jim. Both are on the run but that is just one of their connections.

More to Twain's thinking was the country's awakening to the issue of slavery and from young Huck's early self-involvement and yearning to escape societal restraints, he matures in fits and starts, gradually learning to see Jim as an equal. They work together, battling weather, wrong turns, and threatening con men.

Twain's cynical recognition of the human dark side is tempered with his trademark wit as two scoundrels join the adventure to end the first act. In grungy clothes and garish accents, Christopher Sieber as the phony Duke of Bridgewater and David Pittu as the King of France take the stage with hilarious flair. They have plans to take over the raft and kidnap Jim. Huck is intrigued with their theatrical airs and tempted by their money-making schemes, yet when they bilk mourners out of a funeral, Huck is a shamed. He admits, "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race" and returns the money to the mourners.

Huck's sprawling story-telling is animated by Miller's range of gospel, hymns (“How Blest We Are”), bluegrass, ballads and a jaunty vaudevillian turn. "Muddy Water," remains a lusty audience pleaser.

Huck's ornery father, Pap (Wayne Duvall), delivers a drunken rendition of "Guv'ment" that seems timeless. Huck's developing relationship with Jim ( The Color Purple ) is highlighted in well- blended duets, "River In the Rain" and "Worlds Apart".

Two ballads add poignancy, "You Oughta Be Here With Me" and "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go," but the play rockets to exultation when Jim is finally free. Scatliffe soars, his robust voice triumphant with "Free At Last," the company joining, backed by strong piano chords by Alvin Hough, Jr.

Scatliffe's poise stands out. It contrasts neatly with Barasch's nuanced portrayal of a conflicted Huck. The large cast shows deft casting with Cass Morgan as Widow Douglas, Annie Golden (Miss Watson), and Lauren Worsham as Mary Jane Wilkes and it's fun to see Charlie Franklin appear as Huck’s rebellious old pal, Tom Sawyer.

Allen Moyer's scenic design features a wide backdrop projection of the Mississippi and Paul Miller's lighting gives nuance to the dark, frightening nights on the raft and by day, the busy towns. Jess Goldstein adds colorful costumes. Energetic dances by Josh Rhodes fit the rhythm and energy of Miller's songs and the Rob Berman's orchestra captures the enthusiasm of the country spirit. Fiddler Martha McDonnell (Bright Star) is a bright star here, John Foley's harmonica and Konrad Adderley's bass with guitarists Scott Kiney and Bobby Baxmeyer are outstanding, bolstered by Don Downs (brass) and Bruce Bonvissuto (woodwinds).

A sign hanging above the City Center stage warns, "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot." Actually, in the world today, motive, moral and plot are obvious in this production.

Encores! season continues with Cole Porter’s  The New Yorkers and John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ whimsical reinvention of Greek epic poems  The Golden Apple .

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Big River
Playwright: William Hauptman. Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
Music and Lyrics: Roger Miller
Director: Lear DeBessonet
Cast: Lee Anderson, Nicholas Barasch, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Wayne Duvall, Mike Evariste, Charlie Franklin, Annie Golden, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, Christopher Sieber, and Lauren Worsham
Set Design: Allan Moyer
Lighting Design: Paul Miller
Choreography: Josh Rhodes
Music Director Rob Berman
Running Time: 2 hours. 30 minutes. One intermission
Theatre: City Center (131 West 55th Street, between 6th & 7th Avenues). 
From 2/08/17; closing 2/12/17
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 2/10/17

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Big River
Big River - Roger Miller's score remains catchy, William Hauptman's script is still packed with adventures and the feeling remains pure Americana. Read More