Big River, the musical based on Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, has a storied history. It had a muddied first reception in New York in 1985 but took away a wealth of accolades. The musical had a grand return in 2003 in a celebrated revival produced by Roundabout and Deaf West. And now New York City Center brings it back. And the light shines bright. Directed by Lear deBessonet, as part of the Encores series, Big River, in this run. is a simple yet enthralling production with no frills attached.
With a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller, Big River is the classic story of Huck Finn, a boy looking for an adventure and Jim, a runaway slave looking for freedom. In their journey down the river, they encounter obstacles and detours that open Huck's eyes to the world. This version of Big River, the production let the music soar and the story take center stage while your imagination ran wild. deBessonet's direction was clean and affective, calling out the emotional journeys as best as the text can allow. But if the barometer for success was the exuberance and excellence of the showstopper "Muddy Water," this production wouldn't have lived up to expectations. Yet the overall production was so strong, it's easy to forgive the lack of super power this number ended up having. Despite that, Miller’s score, performed by The Encores! Orchestra, resonated, bringing out a newfound evocative sentiment. Just listen to “Worlds Apart.” It’s bound to hit you profoundly. Through deBessonet’s staging and Josh Rhodes’ choreography, storytelling was the focal point. The piece moved lithely from beat to beat, bringing the audience along for the journey. With the limitation of space, Rhodes was still able to bring some exciting movement into the musical, namely in “The Boys.” The costumes from Jess Goldstein lived in the period but we’ll all be remembering what he put David Pittu in as The Royal Nonesuch.
|photo by Joan Marucs|
Big River, to some, may be a misunderstood big musical. Between a beautiful score and a classic story, Big River will shine on within the canon of musical theater. New York City Center has done an extraordinary job celebrating this work. If you missed it, cross your fingers there’s a chance for another life.