The current revival of “Big River” -- the Mark Twain-derived musical -- is so mediocre that I had to wonder, upon exiting the Lyric Stage Theater, what it was I had liked so much about the award winning play back in 1984.
The warmth of my old memories, these 27 years later, have, I suspect, more to do with a wonderful in-person interview I was lucky enough to conduct with the show’s composer, the late country music great Roger Miller, than with my faded recollection of the play itself. This interview occurred at the offices of the American Repertory Theatre. It was very early in my journalism career, and my long stint with the Boston Herald, and Miller was one of my boyhood musical heroes. In fact, Miller was the lone 1960s country music singer who had a place in my teenage record collection. Nor were my tastes unusual: Roger Miller was the only country artist to regularly visit Billboard’s Top 40, with a dozen pop hits from 1964 to 1968, including witty sprees of word play like “Dang Me,” hummable classics (“King of the Road”), love songs (“Husbands and Wives”) and novelty numbers, most famously, “England Swings.” The idea of pairing Miller’s droll, sophisticated down-home country with Mark Twain’s prose might seem like an obvious choice now, but back then it was a mite daring. Country and Broadway were worlds apart before Miller’s “Big River” came along.
However charmed I was by my interview with the gravel-voiced, genial Miller, I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason I have fond thoughts about the original “Big River.” This musical interpretation of Twain’s finest novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” debuted at the American Repertory Theater in 1984, went on to play 1,005 performances on Broadway, and won multiple Tony Awards, including best musical, best score and best book.
What is good about the Lyric’s current production? The stage sets, devised by scenic designer Janie E. Howland, are marvelous. With only minor changes, a nifty, moveable wooden-plank floor suggests, in turn, a raft rolling down the Mississippi, a starchy Victorian-era parlor and a riverbank town. There’s even a burial plot, replete with sunken grave and casket. Through video projections (by Seaghan McKay), we get a pretty persuasive sense that the raft is moving down the Mississippi at various speeds. Lit-up tableaus of the actors appear occasionally like paintings come to life, a technique especially effective in the touching ballad “You Oughta Be Here With Me.”
The play’s stage movement is graceful and nicely economical. And some of the smaller, comic roles are aces. But that’s it. With a few notable exceptions, the acting is broad and hammy. Some of the singing is effective, but much of it is unsubtle in interpretation, and frequently off-pitch. If Simon Cowell were judging the pitchiness of this cast, he’d be apoplectic.
It is hard to believe that this is the same company that finessed “Animal Crackers” in the spring. Some of the actors were in both. In “Animal Crackers,” flamboyant campiness and arch parody were called for, and the cast pulled off the stylized comedy very well. Here, to recreate Mark Twain’s world-view, we need something deeper than bumpkin hicks and golly-gee naiveté.
The real subjects of “Big River?” It is a rumination on the very nature of human decency, and an unflinching look at America’s original sin, slavery. There is a soulfulness missing from this whole production, but especially in Jordan Ahnquist’s Huck, a young man who is battling between what society claims is righteous behavior, and what his stubborn conscience is beginning to recognize as a truer morality. Too often, Ahnquist depends on clownish mugging for both humor and sorrow.
Huck should be a wild boy; he’s a bit dangerous compared to Tom Sawyer. He has a pure and honorable heart, to be sure, but if you don’t portray a character of rambunctious high spirits, rude boyishness and budding masculinity, it’s just not Huckleberry.
The playwright, William Hauptman, is already giving us Twain-lite, simplifying Twain’s picaresque plot and deepest themes. But by reducing Huckleberry to a parodical bumpkin, as the Lyric show does, the social weight of Twain is lost, and Huck’s troubled friendship with the runaway slave Jim becomes less meaningful. Any production of “Big River” is bound to strike us as Disney-Twain, but this show is like Hee-Haw-Twain.
The one lead actor who does have a serious, soulful side is De’Lon Grant, as the dignified Jim. The relative naturalism of his acting is a plus. But his singing is so frequently pitchy, some very beautiful songs (“River in the Rain,” “Worlds Apart”) are diminished.
There is also a gospel number, “How Blest We Are,” featuring a female singer who will not be named here. While certain of her sustained notes might be called skyrocketing, she is so disastrously off-pitch, the results are truly painful. Some might argue that perfect pitch is not all-important in musical genres that lean heavily on character (stage musicals) or high emotion (gospel, rock). But with tonal problems this severe, there is a limit to what should be deemed acceptable by a professional company.
Three comic actors stand out. As the King and the Duke, Twain’s famous rapscallion crooks, J.T. Turner and Peter A. Carey satisfy the comedic needs of the roles. This duo could con a baby out of his mother’s milk. In modern terms, they’re the kind of all-American huckster who would force a balloon-payment mortgage on a starving family.
And then there’s the best acting job in “Big River,” Paul D. Farwell’s evil Pap Fin. (The small role was played on Broadway by a then unknown John Goodman.) Farwell really gets inside the nasty hearted Pap. You can see in the funny, alcoholic rascal a hint of the sorry bastard within.
There’s also a fine comic turn by Nicholas Lee, as the fiddle-playing “young fool” of the “Arkansas” bit. His exaggerated rube routine is inspired antic comedy. And “Hand For the Hog,” (the one Roger Miller ditty most reminiscent of his old daffy hits like “Chug-a-Lug” and “Do-Wacka-Do”) is well done by Phil Taylor as Tom Sawyer. In fact, a lot of the biggest, broadest comedy works OK, so director Spiro Veloudos can’t be faulted for a lack of comic execution. But there should be a lot more to Huck Finn than high-jinks. Especially for a show that clocks in at nearly three hours.
What it needs, vocally, is something akin to Roger Miller’s wise, droll, understated baritone. Take a simple, rueful line like “River, I love you. Don’t you care?” There’s a depth inside that lyric that has to be interpreted. A theatrical yokel can’t achieve it.
(“Big River” plays until October 8 at the Lyric Stage.) –30--