by Brian Scott Lipton
For veteran theatergoers considering seeing City Center Encores’ current production of “Big River,” the question on their minds may be: can the third time be as charming? After all, they most likely saw the original Broadway production in 1985 (which won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical) and Deaf West’s stunning 2004 revival. Luckily, the answer is yes: Lear deBesonnet’s simply but thoughtfully staged production of this enchanting musical is both entertaining and enlightening.
Of course, most of the credit is due to the immortal Mark Twain, whose novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the source material for this sprawling tale (smartly adapted by William Hauptman). Young Huck (played with fresh-faced appeal by Nicholas Barasch, who could use just a tad more mischievousness) feels stifled in his adoptive home, and then, needing to escape his drunken and dangerous father (Wayne Duvall), he decides to join friendly slave Jim (Kyle Scatliffe, practically oozing inner nobility) who is trying to raft his way northward to freedom.
While these two very different people – a white teen and a black older slave — form a seemingly inseparable bond, their escape plan goes awry: first, when they unwittingly drift pass the entrance to the Ohio River, and second, when they unwisely give passage to two grifters (who pass themselves as the King and the Duke.) This pair, whose antics could grow tiresome in lesser hands, is played to vaudevillian perfection by David Pittu and Christopher Sieber, providing much-needed comic relief.
Indeed, the entire production benefits from such savvy casting. The ever-wonderful Lauren Worsham shines in the smallish role of the naive Mary Jane Wilkes; Charlie Franklin is irresistible as Huck’s feckless pal, Tom Sawyer; Cass Morgan, Annie Golden, Tom Nelis, and Stephen Lee Anderson double and triple most effectively as a variety of adults, and the vocal talents of such ensemble members as Andrew Krupp, Patrice Covington, and Katherine A. Guy are put to excellent use.
One of the continually surprising elements of the show is the versatility of the score by Roger Williams, the country-pop songwriter best known for the mega-hit “King of the Road.” Here, he moves effortlessly from idiom to idiom: gospel-flavored songs (“How Blest We Are”), reflective ballads (“River in the Rain,” “Worlds Apart”), comic vignettes (“Hand for the Hog”), and spiritual anthems (“Free at Last”). And, yes, the show’s best-known number, the duet “Muddy Water,” remains as rousing as ever.
At the beginning of the show, a sign hung from the stage warns us that the show has no moral or plot. But never you mind: in this era where racism has reared back into the forefront of many people’s consciousness, Twain’s not-so-subtle commentary on slavery resonates (at least for me) in a way it didn’t in its previous two productions. In its own way, “Big River” reminds us that the color of a person’s body isn’t nearly as important as the heart that beats inside it.
Big River continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through February 12. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets.