note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Simply stated, The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of eight-time Tony Award winner, “Big River,” is delightful, from overture to finale. The two-act play’s airy music and lyrics by Roger Miller (who penned classic hit, “King of the Road”) and book by William Hauptman, retain Mark Twain’s slice of racist Americana along the Missouri River in the 1840s- for better or worse - depicting his “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in a family-friendly, charming manner.
Currently appearing through Oct. 8, the production boasts a 21-strong, Boston star-studded cast, directed by popular, award-winning Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos. Seaghan McKay’s fantastic three-screen videos and Scott Clyve’s lighting special effects surrounding Janie E. Howland’s deliberately sparse, planked stage keep the audience’s attention riveted throughout this breezy tale.
Mounted as the opening background is a pen-and-ink drawing of a map, similar to a page out of Mark Twain’s beloved novels. Throughout the play, the map scrolls down river, tracing cities and towns along its banks, such as St. Petersburg, Mo., St. Louis, Cairo, Ill., somewhere in Kentucky, Bricktown and Hillsboro, Ark. The large, central screen and smaller two screens on each side boast starlit, dusk and dawn-hued skies, and a brightly lit city skyline, with the flowing river, creating a 3-D effect. There are also live, framed cameos of characters during key scenes.
Although the story traces Huckleberry Finn’s adventures floating down river with noble, superstitious, runaway slave, Jim, after Huck stages his own death to escape from his abusive, drunken dad, the story isn’t depressing. He’s unaware that because Jim has escaped, he’s being blamed for Huck’s “murder”. Twain’s tongue-in-cheek humor and sideward glimpses of humanity shine here, along with his thinly-camouflaged social consciousness.
Jordan Ahnquist is charming as narrator-star Huckleberry Finn, preserving the youth’s naivete, gullibility, and vulnerability during his hair-raising trek, and De’Lon Grant as Jim is equally outstanding. Their harmonic duets in “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain,” and “Worlds Apart” are plaintive highlights. Their individual solos also are pitch perfect. In fact, every number is a treat.
Peter A. Carey as the Duke, wily prison escapee-actor-flim-flam artist, and J.T. Turner as the King, Duke’s dumber-but-meaner partner in crime, add comic relief and cruel realism, while Paul D. Farwell as Huck’s besotted, conniving dad, Pap Finn, is believably disgusting and distasteful.
Erica Spyres shines as saintly Mary Jane Wilkes and beautiful Kami Rushell Smith unleashes her lovely soprano voice as a woeful slave. Unfortunately, Leigh Barrett, Maureen Keillor and Alycia Sacco’s roles are small, but their starpower is evident.
Some theatergoers may cringe at socially improper references, such as “nigger,” but the play is set during the slavery, pre-abolition era, in Twain’s beloved Missouri and in southern communities down the river he piloted, traversed and loved so much. It would destroy “Big River” if those references were veiled or cleaned up.
Music Director-keyboardist Jonathan Goldberg and his seven musicians also preserve the flavor of the old South and Miller’s knee-slappin’ blue grass tunes and hymns.
BOX INFO: Two-act, eight-time Tony Award-winning musical, music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, adapted from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” appearing at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. through Oct. 8. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.;Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; also, Oct. 5, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-$60; seniors, $5 off; student rush, $10; group rates also. Visit lyricstage.com or call 617-585-5678.