Sunday, 12 February 2017

BIG RIVER at City Center Encores

     The audiences at City Center Encores are among the most appreciative in the city. It's always a delight to be part of the crowd at one of these events. I never saw BIG RIVER before and found it flawed but worth reviving for the Roger Miller score.
     I have to start by saying that I had to teach Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN for years in the days I taught American literature surveys at Duke. Although there are some patches of lovely writing, I always felt that Twain's novel was overrated, to put it mildly. All those nasty pranks on the runaway slave, Jim were both tiresome and offensive. For a novel that is against racism, it is filled with cringe-making racist moments and Twain's heavy-handed irony is anything but subtle. Son musical of a novel I don't like is not necessarily a must see. However, Roger Miller's generous score, filled with bluegrass, country and gospel, is very much worth hearing. Some songs seem tangential, but the novel is so episodic that not much justification for a rousing song is necessary.
     Lear de Bessonet has staged the show beautifully. Josh Rhodes' choreography is never obtrusive but always in character. As usual, the band is excellent and the casting first rate. Eighteen-year-old Wunderkind Nicholas Barasch is perfect as Huck. It's a long part -- is he ever offstage? Barasch is charming and sings and dances like an old pro. Jim, the runaway slave, is a tricky part to play in the 21st century. Kyle Scatliffe gives him great strength, integrity and pathos. He does all he can to make a human being out of a cardboard character. David Pittu and Christopher Sieber manage to make the villainous con men both nasty and enjoyable. The rest of the large cast sings beautifully and makes as much as they can out of Twain's characters.  
     The production didn't win me over to Twain's book, but reminded me of of how talented Roger Miller was.

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