By Geary Danihy
Big River, which recently opened at Goodspeed Opera House, is like a piece of chiffon pie – pleasant to consume, but a lot of air has been whipped in, so it’s essentially unfulfilling.
The production is visually up to Goodspeed’s standards, which means the sets, created by Michael Schweikardt, are innovative and, as always, technically intriguing, given the amount of space Goodspeed has to work with, the costumes, by Alejo Vietti, are period appropriate, and the direction by Rob Ruggiero keeps the evening moving at a nice pace.
Will Reynolds as Huckleberry Finn and Russell Joel Brown as Jim in Goodspeed Opera House's Big River.
Photograph by Diane Sobolewski
The problems with Big River are two-fold. One has to do with the nature of some of the musical numbers and the other has to do with the source for the musical, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
There was a time when Broadway “musicals” were little more than loosely plotted revues sprinkled through with songs that may or may not have been written specifically for that show. Then came Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat in 1927, followed later by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1943, both of which helped to change the nature of the Broadway musical by integrating songs and dances into the plot, creating an artistic “whole” in which the musical numbers either advanced the story line or deepened characterization.
Although Big River, with a book by William Hauptman, certainly has a plot – and a mighty familiar one it is – many of the songs by Roger Miller are really not related to what is going on up on the stage. For example, in Act One, Huck (Will Reynolds) makes an off-hand comment about what Tom Sawyer (Jeremy Jordan) might say about a hog, which is the lead-in to Tom suddenly appearing to sing “Hand for the Hog,” a sprightly, comic number that has absolutely nothing to do with the show’s plot.
This occurs again in Act Two when the “Duke” (John Bolton) and the “King” (Ed Dixon), with Huck and Jim (Russell Joel Brown) in tow, approach Hillsboro, Arkansas, in search of more “flatheads” to fleece. They are greeted by a character listed in the program as Young Fool (Adam Shonkwiller), who sings “Arkansas,” a hillbilly ditty that, once again, has no connection to the story. It’s simply fill.
Then there are the numbers that are unnecessarily puffed up by ensemble back-up, such as “How Blest We Are” and “Free At Last” or that force the audience to focus on secondary characters whose development is unnecessary, such as the Phelps sisters’ duet, “You Oughta Be Here With Me,” which moves the story forward not one note.
These lapses are made all the more obvious by the songs that do, in fact, “work,” such as “Guv’ment,” a drunken harangue delivered by Huck’s father, Pap (Kenneth Cavett), that, much to the delight of the audience, captures and defines Pap’s character as he rages against the intrusion of “government” in the life of an honest man. The nature of Huck’s plight as he is being civilized is nicely framed in the show’s opening number, “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” and the conniving nature of the Duke and King are made perfectly clear in the opening number of the second act, “The Royal Nonesuch.”
The second problem is with the material from which the show is drawn. Twain set aside the draft of Huckleberry Finn for several years. When he returned to it, the “spirit” in which the first two-thirds of the book had been composed had changed.
The biggest problem with the conclusion of the book, many critics have claimed, is that all Huckleberry has learned in his travels down the river with Jim, including the acceptance of the runaway slave as a human being and the young man’s decision to defy society’s rules (and thereby, he believes, damn himself) by protecting Jim, seems to be lost as Huck eagerly joins Tom in a convoluted plan to help Jim escape from the Phelps’ farm, an escape that, as Tom is well aware, turns out to be totally unnecessary since Jim’s “owner,” Miss Watson (Nancy Johnston), had freed Jim on her deathbed.
Hauptman condensed these final scenes but Huck’s moral failure is still there for all to see – the knowledge he has gained on his “quest” has been set aside and he is once again a feckless boy held in thrall by Tom Sawyer’s desire to playact.
The show’s less than satisfactory conclusion does not take away from the energy and style of its cast members who, as in all Goodpseed productions, give 110 percent in their efforts to entertain. Special note should be taken of Cavett’s delightful turn as Pap and the work of Dixon and Bolton in bringing the two scalawags, the King and Duke, to life. A pleasing surprise is Jordan’s work as Tom; he was last seen in Connecticut in Hartford TheaterWorks’ The Little Dog Laughed in a role that couldn’t be more different than that of Tom Sawyer.
Big River runs through Sunday, Nov. 30. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.