|Jordan Ahnquist (front) as Huck Finn and De'Lon Grant as Jimin the Lyric Stage production. (Mark S. Howard)|
Huck Finn adventure rolls in ‘River’
‘Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’’ is wide but not deep, a pleasant enough but not especially memorable musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel.
After beginning life at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 1984, “Big River’’ went on to Broadway in 1985, where it won an inexplicable passel of Tony Awards, including best musical, best score, and best book.
The show is now at Lyric Stage Company, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos and with an appealing cast that makes the most of the sketchy material they have been given by the late Roger Miller (score) and William Hauptman (book).
Some of Miller’s songs, such as “Muddy Water,’’ do soar, while others, like the opening ensemble number “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven,’’ sparkle with the bouncy cleverness of his pop classic “King of the Road.’’ At other times, though, Miller’s lyrics feel interchangeable and generic, as if they were pulled from the songwriter’s desk drawer and dropped into “Big River’’ rather than arising organically from specific characters.
This is especially problematic with songs like “Worlds Apart.’’ This second-act number should be a high point of the show, since it underscores the radically different perspectives of young, rebellious Huck Finn (Jordan Ahnquist) and an escaped slave named Jim (De’Lon Grant), yet also touches upon the bonds of friendship and understanding that are growing between them. But “Worlds Apart’’ dissolves into radio-ready generalities.
Veloudos directed a masterful two-part production last year of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,’’ another stage adaptation of a 19th-century novel by a literary giant (Charles Dickens). But while there are certainly poignant moments in “Big River,’’ such as “River in the Rain,’’ a duet between Huck and Jim, the show just doesn’t get under the skin the way “Nicholas Nickleby’’ did.
In theory, there’s no reason it shouldn’t. After all, the tale of a runaway boy and a fugitive slave, whose relationship deepens during a journey by raft down the Mississippi River, is one of the most enduringly resonant in American literature. Yet the story line of “Big River’’ drifts away from Huck and Jim for protracted periods, turning its focus to the antics of a pair of admittedly colorful scam artists, The Duke (Peter A. Carey) and The King (J.T. Turner), which diminishes the show’s overall emotional impact.
Ahnquist makes for an engaging Huck, though he is a bit too fresh-scrubbed for such a ragamuffin character. (His attire, especially his green checked shirt, seems to belong more to a Gap ad than to the muddy Mississippi.) As he demonstrated in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s 2010 production of “[title of show],’’ and as he shows again in “Big River,’’ Ahnquist is a versatile and likable musical performer.
So is Grant, who returns to the theater where he made such an indelible impression in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’’ Grant invests Jim with a quiet moral authority, bringing heart-rending force to his agony at being separated from his wife and children, especially when he recalls how he struck his young daughter after she ignored his command to close a door, unaware she had been rendered deaf by scarlet fever. Along with unnamed slave characters played by Kami Rushell Smith, Marchant Davis, Marlon Smith-Jones, and Nellanna, Grant delivers a powerfully moving performance of “Free at Last.’’
Leigh Barrett and Maureen Keiller are solid, if underused, as Miss Watson and Widow Douglas, respectively, while Phil Tayler registers vividly as Tom Sawyer. Paul D. Farwell reels across the stage with abandon as Pap Finn, Huck’s drunken father, at one point seeming to channel Billy Bob Thornton’s voice from “Sling Blade,’’ while Turner sputters and schemes entertainingly as The King. The mobile-faced Carey is amusing as The Duke, especially when he mangles Shakespeare before a paying audience that is at first bewildered, then irate.
At a time when musicals are more inclined toward the edgy than the G-rated, the Lyric’s production of “Big River’’ might well find its own audience among families with children. That’s fine, but here’s hoping the kids also take the time to read Twain’s book.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.