Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2004
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”
– Samuel Clemens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I have problems with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I realize that I am not alone, the book has been highly controversial since the day it was published. Its first readers found the language “coarse” and its politics alarmingly liberal. By the time “Big River” debuted on Broadway a hundred years later Huck’s language was tame, but the book’s depiction of African-Americans was still not politically correct. First it was banned because it depicted blacks as human beings with rights, and then it was banned because it depicted them as slaves who kow-towed to whites. Both statements are true, but neither was popular.
But my problems have nothing to do with either the language or the politics of Huckleberry Finn. My problems are literary. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) began writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before he had finished the novel that introduced Huck to the world, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The latter was published in 1876, but Huck’s tale wasn’t published until 1884. Having discovered a wonderful character and voice in Huck, Clemens wrote three-quarters of the novel and then got stuck. He put the book away in a drawer for many years, and finally pulled it out and tacked on an ending that is neither interesting nor satisfying. In my mind “Huckleberry Finn” is three-quarters of a great book. Clemens either deliberately dodged or simply forgot about Jim’s tale and slapped on an ending that took Huck back to being merely a mischievous boy, instead of a young man finding himself in the world.
Somehow I have managed to miss seeing Big River over the last 19 years since it took the Tony Award for Best Musical of 1985, along with the awards for Best Book and Best Score, among others. Author William Hauptman is extremely faithful to Clemens’ book, and even retains the device of having Huck narrate his adventures. This works well in the novel, but on stage this has the odd effect of making Huck almost a voyeur of his own life. We are told what happens more than we are shown what happens, and this is a show, not a “tell.”
Renowned country music composer Roger Miller, who did both music and lyrics for Big River, incorporates musical ideas from the late 19th century with contemporary rhythms to create a real rip-snortin’, foot-stompin’ joy of a score. At Cohoes director Jim Charles has assembled a cast of excellent singers and musical director Patrick Young has coached them well and supports them with a lively trio in the pit. Everything sounds just great.
Staging this family-friendly show at the 1874 Cohoes Music Hall, a place Huck could have visited in his travels if his raft was floating down the Mohawk or Hudson instead of the Mississippi, seems like an excellent idea. It is the exactly the sort of hall in which the Duke would have performed his tortured Shakespearean soliloquies for a local audience who, with any luck, would have had the good taste to boo him off the stage and send him fleeing westward to his meeting with Huck, Jim, and the King.
But I also have problems with this production of Big River. Some of them are inherited from Clemens original or Hauptman’s book and therefore beyond the control of anyone at Cohoes, and others are obviously unique to this production. My first complaint is Karen Danielle Coffin’s set, which consists of several layers of grey steps ascending to a smudged off-white cyclorama and bordered by a series of hanging grey flats. In some ways, it is very effective in its simplicity and makes good use of the small, shallow stage. Charles’ best stage pictures are created when assembling and moving the entire cast across the various levels. But ultimately it is too plain and bare.
While the set looks great when filled, there is an awful lot of time when just one or two people are on stage, and then it looks very bland. Combined with Jenn Dugan’s drab colored costumes, it is too little of a good thing. I am sure that the average Midwesterner in the mid-19th century did not dress in bright colors, but this is the theatre and I wish someone had taken some artistic license to brighten things up a bit.
This production fails to evoke any feeling of danger. What Huck and Jim do is against the law. They are both escaping from their “owners” – Huck from his father who owns him because he is still a minor and Jim by the Widow Douglas who owns him as a slave. They are literally running for their lives and are in constant danger. I didn’t get that from the performance I saw. Granted, I attended at a poorly attended matinee with the deadest of dead audiences. It is completely possible that a full and enthusiastic house would have enabled me to experience a very different show. One must never forget that the audience is a large and important character in every performance.
Huck’s Pap (Paul Blankenship) seemed like a merry old soul, as opposed to a dangerous drunk. In the original Broadway production the role was played by John Goodman. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want an angry drunken John Goodman wuppin’ on me! Since this production is set to play to many school groups it could be that Charles decided to tone Blankenship down so that he wouldn’t be too frightening to elementary schoolers, but if so he has done them a disservice because a happy Pap removes Huck’s motivation for running away in the first place.
Of course, Huck and Jim’s tale is also one of great adventure. And that element was captured beautifully. When Scott McLean as Huck and Horace Earl Smith II as Jim boarded that raft and pushed off from shore I shared completely in their joy at their freedom and their anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead. This was a moment when Coffin’s set worked and Andrew Gmoser turned on a wonderful light show depicting moon and lantern light bouncing off of the ever-moving Mississippi waters. I wish that was the story Clemens had written – Huck and Jim escaping on the raft. I wish they didn’t miss Cairo in the fog, that they headed up the Ohio towards the free states. I wish we got to see Jim reunited with his wife and children in the end. But, of course, we don’t.
In case you can’t tell, I am a big fan of Jim. He is an honest and honorable man who risks everything to reunite his family. Smith is a big, handsome man with a beautiful voice. He is peddling his new CD in the lobby after the show and I can think of few nicer things on a cold winter’s night than to listen to that rich, enveloping voice. When he was singing I believed him completely, but the lack of a sense of danger really hurt him in his acting moments. I never believed this Jim feared for his life.
I like Huck, but I did not like Scott McLean in the part. I realize that he has made quite a career out of playing the part, having done a national tour of Big River in the role, but I found him way too clean-cut and bland. He appeared to be watching Huck’s adventures, rather than starring in them. I did not get the sense from McLean’s performance that he feared his father, that he was exasperated with the Widow Douglas’ attempts to “civilize” him, or that he really struggled with the issue of whether it was right or wrong to help Jim escape slavery.
And I have never liked Tom Sawyer. I know he is a fictional character, but I wish he would drop dead. Derek Pay is way too tall and obviously too old for the role, but then he is playing a thoroughly annoying little twerp so what chance did he really have? The appearance of Tom in the last quarter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn signals the beginning of Clemens’ much delayed tacked-on ending. This is where the author abandoned the more adventurous path of following Jim to freedom and returned to the stock comedy of boyhood hi-jinks on the Mississippi. It makes me sad.
So, who did I like in this production? I just loved Kris Anderson as the Duke. Anderson is a tall toothpick of a man – all legs and teeth. He looks like a Dickensian cartoon and he makes me laugh. I loved Lindsay K. Northern’s sweet rendition of You Oughta Be Here With Me as Mary Jane Wilkes, although her subsequent flicker of romance with Huck played poorly because of the lack of any strong emotion in this production. And I got a kick out of Joe Phillips as the King. He was a particularly good sport about appearing in his “Royal Nonesuch” drag.
I thoroughly enjoyed the gospel quartet of the fabulous Mary Wiggins and three talented Albany teens: Veronica Lewis, Joyel Kaleel, and Donelle James Foreman. They sounded so wonderful I wished that I got to hear more from them. Either Lewis or Kaleel gets a chance to shine in a fine solo on How Blest We Are in the second act.
There were a host of good supporting players in the cast as well. I always rejoiced when the whole cast, or at least a goodly crowd of them, appeared on the stage because they always sounded good and did something interesting.
So some of my curmudgeonly criticisms have to do with my own personal prejudices surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and some have to do with this particular production. All in all, this is an entertaining show that is well-worth attending if only to hear this marvelous score sung so wonderfully well. And Huck’s adventures are a good yarn. Many people like them more than I do and will be pleased with Hauptman’s faithful rendition of all their favorite bits, like Huck masquerading as a girl and Tom’s elaborate plans for springing Jim from the Phelps’ tool-shed. Pack up the family and go and enjoy.
C-R Productions’ production of Big River runs through November 7 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. the show runs two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-7999 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004