New York City Center Encores! has rediscovered the 1985 Broadway production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a musical adapted from Mark Twain’s novel, and given it a new, lively concert-style staging (February 8-12, 2017). A large company and the on-stage Encores! Orchestra combine to creatively capture the music and lyrics by Roger Miller and William Hauptman’s book.
The plot is very incident-packed and a bit too sprawling. Still, the essence of Twain’s vision is there, wrapped in the twang-y country-style score mixed with passionate songs that give meaning to the tale involving the ultimate freeing of the slave Jim, Huck’s pal in their adventures and flight.
Nicholas Barasch makes a delightfully rebellious Huck, who befriends Jim, played with dignity by Kyle Scatliffe. Huck can be immature and insensitive to Jim’s status in life, illustrated by Huck’s playing a mean trick on him, but during the show there is gradual bonding as Huck helps free Jim after he is captured and sold as a runaway slave. The musical is historically uplifting when Jim sings “Free At Last.” Scatliffe has a commanding voice, also exemplified in his “Muddy Water” and “Worlds Apart” duets with Barasch.
The adventures of Jim and Huck are quite extended, with all of the dangers encountered, and the role of Tom Sawyer is woven in with Charlie Franklin amiably playing Tom. Along the way we get to meet two comic, scene-stealing charlatans-- David Pittu as The King and Christopher Sieber as The Duke. They make a funny team as they try to fleece the gullible.
The production, set along the Mississippi River Valley in the 1840s, has some nifty numbers with the Ensemble adding strength backing the soloists. The director is Lear deBessonet, with musical direction by Rob Berman and choreography by Josh Rhodes. A wide photo representing the Mississippi area (scenic design by Allen Moyer) serves as background, abetted by Paul Miller’s lighting design. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed February 11, 2017.