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Theatre Review: Big River Fills Its Audience At New York City Center

New York City Center Encores! is a hidden gem of New York. I say “hidden” because their exceptional productions of classic, often untapped musicals only last a few days. Yet, those days are filled with packed houses and people eager to see a musical they have not seen and might not go to Broadway anytime soon. One musical they excellently brought back to life was Roger Miller’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The musical opens with a notice from Mr. Mark Twain, himself, that warns the crowd not look into the musical for motivations and meanings. The author, like many creative geniuses, was particular about his work during his life and equally watchful to those watching him. Yet, I cannot help but be assured he would have loved this production. The Encores! orchestra is front and center in a scene that is modern and beautiful thanks to the vision of designer Allen Moyer. As movable wooden decks are used to pretend Huck (Nicholas Barasch) and Jim (Kyle Scatliffe) head down the Mississippi River to hopeful freedom. A huge screen is behind them subtly changing to nature images that match the many routes Huck and Jim take to find both spiritual and literal liberation. We find Huck frustrated at his potential “civilizing” by the Widow Watson (Annie Golden). Barasch performance is a imaginative magnet. He captures the mischievousness and naivety of Huck Finn as an emblem of rebellious youth that struggles to define compassion beyond the social constructs he has been taught. Enter Jim as a friend and runaway slave who teaches him humanity through the love and loyalty he exudes. Scatliffe plays Jim with care and a gentle sweetness that captivated audiences, and helped them believe that if anyone could bring wisdom and empathy to Huck’s heart, it would be him.
The whole is cast perfect in their roles to the point of visionary.

From their accents, personalities,  costumes designed by Jess Goldstein, and ability to make a simple set feel like a time-warped world, Big River’s ensemble was a lively pleasure. Wayne Duvall as Pap Finn, Christopher Sieber as The Duke, and David Pittu as The King add a humor and nuance to the stage that drives the musical’s time period: 1840’s. Through their brash humor and abrasive behaviors, they help to clarify Mississippi’s dual atmosphere between hospitable and self-righteous. Musically, it was great to hear some good old country music and folk strings been strummed in the theatre. Yet, the music moments that most stood out were the spirituals arranged by Linda Twine and Alving Hough Jr. and sung by ensemble Patrice Covington, Katherine A. Guy, and Adrianna Hicks. Their roles did not dominate the story, but their voices certainly did, especially when matched with their parts as slaves. There were certainly a few gasps in the audience at witnessing a musical that is brazenly placed in the heart of a history America struggles to remember and acknowledge. Yet, Encores succeeded in addressing the harsh history and humanity of this musical and elevating it into further moral lessons on spiritual equality and respect. Ironically, Director Rob Berman did not avoid placing motivations and meaning to Mark Twain’s work, but I like to think that the acclaimed author would have appreciated the depth he added. For More Information On New York City Center Click Here. 

Location: New York City Center- 131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th)
New York, NY 10019

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission. It played from February 10 – 12.