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Friday, February 06, 2015

Comin’ Back to the Raft Agin

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-seven years ago I reviewed a touring production of Roger Miller’s musicalization of Huckleberry Finn, a sweet-tempered show called Big River. Perhaps I have too much reverence for the novel, which colored my opinion in this brief notice; in the years since, I’ve had a great time performing a song from the show: “You Oughta Be Here with Me,” in which I accompanied Amy Prothro, who melts your heart with the thing, on violin.


HUCKLEBERRY FINN FAIRLY LEAPS from the pages of Mark Twain’s novel as a timeless, fully-realized “cretur” whose adventures reveal those insights about ourselves that only the best novelists can capture. The book is virtuoso display of storytelling in which style is impossible to separate from content. Although the stories it tells are vivid, they rely on narrative language for their effectiveness.

In short, it’s a book that defies translation into any other discipline, and until Big River came on the scene it successfully resisted the lure of the stage (and screen). 

The Roger “Dang Me” Miller musical played a brief, acclaimed run at Proctor’s last week, demonstrating why it works so well: it’s just a swell kind of a setting, with high-energy performances and harmless songs. It moves quickly, celebrates freedom and the river and a few other wholesome things, and flirts with the general cussedness that made (and continues to make) the book such a cause célèbre.

But it ain’t Twain. As if to drive that point home, the costumed figure of the author appears at the start of the piece, somewhat bemusedly observing the entrance of Huck; he sings a bit of the toe-tappin’ opener, “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven!” before slipping away. He’s just not comfortable with these proceedings.

What’s left is a comfortable reminder of a book we all probably should read again. It’s not a kid’s book, but this is a kid’s musical, and those who continue to confuse Huck with children’s material probably will see no difference.

Romain Fruge, as Huck, is a little better-scrubbed than you might have expected, but that, too, symbolizes the transfer of page to stage. He and Michael Edward-Stevens, as Jim, approach the friendly bonding of the two runaways without much of the meat of Huck’s dilemma, but you can’t complain when they start to sing. “River in the Rain.” Although it tells us nothing about the story, it’s a pleasant, tuneful diversion, and their big number, “Muddy Water,” has the advantage of borrowing freely from the well-known folk song “Lonesome Valley” for instant familiarity.

With the arrival of the Duke and the King (Michael Calkins and Walker Joyce), the show succumbs to the lure of Silly Business; we laugh at the crotch-humor antics of the two and are denied the greater purpose of parody that inspired their creation.

But nobody will leave the show unhappy. It would be best to consider it a sort of TV sit-com based on characters created by Twain, enjoy it for its innocent merits, and read the original novel again.

Big River, directed by Michael Greif
Proctor’s Theatre, Feb. 13

Metroland Magazine, 18 February 1988

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