WHAT “Big River”
WHERE New York City Center
INFO $35-$125; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE Roger Miller’s country songs are still the best part of a bland show.
Many people have special affection for “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” This was the first (and only) musical score by the late country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who won a 1985 Tony for his savvy and jolly songs that roamed styles from honky-tonk to spirituals, from blues to hymns to foot-stomping, string-picking, dang-me country two-steps.
The 17 songs — simply structured but theatrically shrewd — were the best things about “Big River” then. And they are the best part of the semi-staged concert revival that kicked off the New York City Center Encores! season — the songs plus the first and second act overtures played by an expert, rousing chamber orchestra conducted by Rob Berman.
But the show struck me as bland and surprisingly ho-hum in the original and, despite a fine cast in director Lear DeBessonet’s pleasant story-theater production, I still think the journey’s a bore.
There is just no urgency in William Hauptman’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s familiar tale of Huck and the runaway slave Jim and their episodic adventures up, then down, the mighty Mississippi.
Nicholas Barasch has the presence and the look — dangly arms and carrot hair — as Huck, though his singing only comes alive in duets with Kyle Scatliffe’s imposing, sensitive Jim. David Pittu as The King and Christopher Sieber as The Duke have hambone fun as those scoundrels, but the comic characters inevitably get tiresome. Patrice Covington delivers the requisite roof-rising gospel cameos. Charlie Franklin, as Tom Sawyer, makes the most of a dirt-kicking tribute to pigs, and a young talent named Andrew Kruep sings a novelty ode to Arkansas that offers a delightfully bizarre diversion.
The ensemble of theater vets, including Annie Golden and Cass Morgan, reappear as multiple townsfolk along the journey, played on Allen Moyer’s set with just a few pieces of furniture, some crates and a raft that slides. A large image of the Mississippi looms from behind the orchestra, looking bleak and lonely and more darkly interesting than the show.