"ALL MODERN American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Ernest Hemingway once remarked Roger Miller and William Hauptman's Big River is an attempt to bring nearly all of that book on stage--an ambitious transplanting, to say the very least. Rather than amplifying a few key events or themes of the story. Big River presents most of it as a series of vignettes interspersed with musical numbers. Some of the scenes work splendidly, drawing on the sardonic, slapstick and drawling wit of the original story. Others, however, become a tribute to Cliff Notes by capturing the plot but losing the content as well as the excitement of the story.
The different frames takes us from St. Petersburg. Mo., down the Mississippi--"flowing" into the middle of the stage in Heidi Landesman's creative sets. Following the well-known plot, Jim and Huck join forces in running away; Jim hopes to escape slavery, while Huck is running away from folk who want to "civilize" him. Ironically, the production falters precisely because Huck is too civilized. Huck's dual role as both narrator and protagonist is, at times, problematic. While in the "active" mode, he is scrambling about to keep the action going. Then, stopping dead in his tracks, he turns to the audience to tell what is happening, what is to follow, and how he/we feel about it. At times, the sentiment and explanations come across as a little too facile; the action, with all the subtlety of Saturday-morning cartoons. Many of the minor characters are more effective in suggesting motivations than Huck, who is forced to state them, either through slightly too earnest philsophizing or in songs such as "How Much Does It Cost to New Orleans", a song whose glossy sentiment sounds more like something from Yentl than the tone of this production.
Robert Joy, while a fine actor, seems somewhat miscast as Huckleberry. He seems too uncomfortably Eastern to make a convincing Mississippi urchin Big River's Huck lacks the lazy, shrewd kind of cool that made I wam's hero so memorable.
THE PLAY IMPROVES a great deal by the time we hit Arkansas and Act Two Jerome Kilty as The King, and John Bottoms as The Duke are both hilarious and pathetic as they dupe revivalists and riff-raff alike.
Equally good are the sequences in Hillsboro, where the rogues finally go too far in trying to victimize three orphan-sisters, well-played by Karen MacDonald, Marianne Owens, and Nina Bernstein. These scenes also contain the most effective musical number. "You Ought to Be Here With Me"--a song in which the intentional use of AM-radio cliches transcends the genre as it fails to do so in other numbers.
Ben Halley, Jr. is superb as Jim, the runaway slave trying to raft his way into a free state. Jim's character is the only one that is developed beyond the two-dimensionality of the others. Resisting the temptation to condescend to his role or to the audience, Halley portrays a multi-faceted, complex character who is childlike and wise at once, evoking pathos without fishing for it. Were Huck as carefully developed and convincingly acted as Jim, the different episodes of the play would assume the coherence and interest that the production occasionally lacks.
All in all, Big River does not capture the leisurely pace and complexity Twain's Mississippi. It features some excellent acting and sparkling scenes, however, enough to make it worth a trip to Brattle St.