My first post! Instead of trying to come up with some overview of who I am or some emotional retrospective of something that is far too broad for one post, I’m just going to get right to it and post about my experience seeing Big River at New York City Center last night.
“Big River” is a Tony Award winning musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It has a score infused with country, bluegrass, and gospel, and was originally produced on Broadway in 1985, where it ran for over 1000 performances and won seven Tonys (ref). City Center has an annual series of Encores, where they stage concert performances of shows that have been overlooked or off the radar for a little while, and some of these Encores have led to Broadway revivals and/or increased awareness of a show. The current “Chicago” revival started as an Encores performance, and so did the upcoming “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Big River tells a story that has always been controversial. It’s a story that turns race and dignity and class on it’s head. That’s the point. Huck, who is 13 in the novel and was played by the charming 18 year old Nicholas Barasch, is so winningly naive that he sees through the veneer of what people have been telling him is right and wrong, and the story is about him assisting a runaway slave named Jim, played by Kyle Scatliff. Both had stunning vocals and brought a spirit to the show that was quite special.
Big River is a story that tells of an adventure. It’s an adventure story that captures the excitement of the unknown, and the unknowable. It captures the conflict between excitement and consequences. Big River frames the story through Huck’s eyes, that of wonder and adventure. As the show progresses, Huck, and the audience, realize that besides just being an adventure, the mission of getting Jim to freedom has serious consequences. Their lives are in danger as they float down the Mighty Mississippi. Anybody who discovers what’s really going on can turn the tables in an instant, which happens in the show when they encounter two con men who join and in some ways usurp the journey and hog the attention of the show. Big River’s standout songs are “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain,” and “How Blessed We Are,” and the score shines because it infuses Americana and country rhythms into the score, which is not normally seen on Broadway.
Big River is an important show because it tells a quintessentially American story. The only truly pure and virtuous character in the story is Jim, the runaway slave, who is always honest. The story itself is exciting and funny, but the underlying current of danger is palpable. Big River doesn’t quite infuse the danger and depth of the story quite as much as the book, but it’s a great experience, and a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking one.