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A River Runs Through It

Theater Review: Big River

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What do Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings have in common? In 2002, all three made the American Library Association's list of most "frequently challenged" books.

Huckleberry Finn is the oldest on the list; various libraries and schools have banned it since publication in 1885. According to the ALA, racism, insensitivity and offensive language are the charges most frequently brought against this book, in which Huck tells the story of his adventures rafting down the Mississippi River with the runaway slave Jim.

Big River, which debuted on Broadway in 1985 and went on to win seven Tony Awards, is a more playful and less controversial musical adaptation of Twain's classic; it's faithful to Twain's text --perhaps too much so in some places --but keeps a family-friendly focus. Despite more than a dozen actors portraying multiple characters, playwright William Hauptman never loses sight of the story's heart: the developing friendship between Huck and Jim.

Big River alternates between staged scenes and narrative passages, in which Huck, played by Teddy Eck, speaks directly to the audience. The staged portions dramatize incidents from Huck's story in real time. In these, Hauptman has done an admirable job of transferring the flavor and vernacular of Twain's text to the stage.

The soliloquy sections are less successful, in part because they refer to events that have taken place in the past. Soliloquies can illustrate a dramatic decision, illustrating in-the-moment angst. They're less effective as a way of relating what happened -- a blatant violation of the storyteller's mantra of "Show, don't tell."

The audience has to take Eck's word when he recounts playing a cruel joke on Jim, and fretting over whether to apologize. He reports, "It was almost fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself before a nigger -- but I done it. And I weren't sorry for it either."

This text handicaps Eck; but he makes up for it with physical presence. His Huck is as spry as you would expect of a character used to life in the outdoors, hopping fences and fending for himself. Despite spending almost the entire show on stage and having significant parts in no fewer than nine songs, Eck never lets his energy flag or his clear voice waver.

Big River boasts a score by country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, best known for the hit song "King of the Road." Miller wrote the songs in Big River to stand alone, rather than advance the story, harkening back to early 20th-century musical theater. Taking its cue from vaudeville, the early musical had a full-length plot that was punctuated by musical interludes.

Rodgers & Hammerstein began to change that in 1943 with Oklahoma --the first musical in which every song develops the characters or the plot. In shows such as Les Miserables, the songs literally tell the story. By bucking this trend, Miller creates a challenge for directors such as Weston's Steve Stettler: how to integrate Miller's score into the Huck Finn story.

There's no getting around the fact that some of Miller's songs are, first and foremost, diversions. Huck's father "Pap Finn," played by Ed Sala, protests against the "Guv'ment" while reeling drunkenly in time with the music. "The King" and "the Duke," played by Geoffrey Wade and Tom Aulino, respectively, tunefully sell tickets to townspeople. Will Ray's Tom Sawyer delivers the most superfluous number of them all in "Hand for the Hog" --albeit with winning gusto. These numbers interrupt the plot, but they're amusing nonetheless.

Stettler is most successful when he uses songs to put Huck's world in context -- or to show the development of his relationship with Jim. In "So Ya Wanna go to Heaven?" for example, the whole of St. Petersburg, Missouri, gangs up on Huck, preaching that he'd better become a model citizen or the consequences will be dire. This piece not only lets the audience see the town from Huck's point of view, it shows what drove him away.

Huck and Jim --played by C. Mingo Long --take turns poling the raft in a number called "Muddy Water." They sing separately at first, but, as the song ends, the two sing together and synchronize their movements. Their happy harmony negotiating the river carries powerful social implications.

Long's performance is a boon to this production, and not just for his strong singing voice. It would be easy to fall into a role subordinate to Eck's strong Huck, but Long finds ways to convey that Jim's a well-rounded character with a personal journey of his own. When he first meets Huck, Long's demeanor is that of a slave on the run -- deferential and anxious. But as the show progresses and Jim moves toward freedom, his body language accordingly becomes freer and more confident.

Elaborate technical elements work together to support the cast. Barbara A. Bell's period costumes incorporate rich hue and textures. James Leonard Joy's colorful set employs movable platforms with a backdrop of wide steps. Intricately painted two-dimensional trees, boats and houses slide smoothly on and off these steps to set the scene of an island, the river or a village. Much of the action takes place on one of the weathered-wood platforms, which functions as Huck and Jim's raft.

That raft forms the centerpiece of this show, a place apart from the society that has taught Huck to think of Jim as less than human. It's where Huck can learn to think for himself. After all, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Big River is a coming-of-age story. This well-crafted, professional production is a credit both to the novel and the Broadway tradition upon which it draws.

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