I’m of two minds about the Lyric Stage Company’s ambitious BIG RIVER (playing through Oct. 8th). Two big performances make it soar. De’Lon Grant and Jordan Ahnquist as Jim and Huckleberry Finn lift the musical out of its one dimensional moorings into transcendent territory. They’re sheer pleasure to watch.
But I’m afraid some of the staging (especially in Act I) serves to keep the musical earthbound. Huck and Jim are fully realized characters so why aren’t the rest of the people in their world? Now I know Mark Twain invented plenty of peripheral characters (and plenty of mischief) but the stage production looses something by embracing full blown parody. The Lyric presents Huck’s back story as caricature, making his caretakers, father and friends stock tropes (and shrill ones at that, as if Jim Nabors had been channeled for his famous “gol-ly” Southern accent).
Since the William Hauptman/Roger Miller musical already has two vaudevillians (who arrive one hour in), it seems to me dramatically detrimental to treat the early scenes as vaudeville. Act II, happily, offers more naturalistic characterizations (except for a Gomer Pylized Tom Sawyer). With real characters like Leigh Barrett’s sympathetic Aunt Sally and John Costa’s principled doctor, the whole story is fleshed out … and compelling. Take Nicholas Lee’s delicious cameo, singing “Arkansas.” He’s so sincere that we’re delighted. We’re not laughing at crass histrionics. We’re laughing at his innocence. Besides, Peter A. Carey niftily delivers all the buffoonery the play needs, spouting his slaughtered Shakespeare.
Miller’s lovely country music is at its best in anthems about the river. Jim and Huck’s glorious “Muddy Water” is even surpassed by the stirring “River in the Rain.” Music director Jonathan Goldberg makes every number count. Pity we couldn’t see the musicians who had us tapping our shoes.
Twain invented his famous “escape” story to soften the hearts of anti-Abolitionists so the issue of slavery is experienced mostly through Huck’s white eyes. We see other slaves as Huck and Jim drift down river but we don’t encounter them as characters, which is my problem with the musical. Director Spiro Veloudos has wonderful performers like Kami Rushell Smith and Nellanna in the cast and they’re only called upon to sing or march about in shackles.
I can’t help cringing, too, at the story of a black man at the mercy, and salvation, of whites. Granted the adapters were stuck with the original story but I can’t watch it without thinking of the countless spurious plays and films with just that plotline. And I recall the not too distant past when the only parts for black actors were maids, pimps, prostitutes and slaves. (Not at the Lyric Stage, I should point out. Look for their AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ later this season.) However, the big Hollywood buzz this fall is about the maids in THE HELP. Here we go again.