Pioneer Theatre Company’s characteristically high production values and solid performances make “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” rise above its somewhat mediocre source material and turn into something fine.
(By source material, I mean the musical, not the Mark Twain novel it’s based on. Believe me, I know better than to criticize a Mark Twain novel in a public setting.)
Country-music legend Roger Miller wrote the music, most of which sounds approximately the same (especially in the first act), though it does fit the setting of the play. The exceptions, however, make for some fantastic moments.
Huck’s trailer-trash prototype dad (E.J. Carroll) has an amusingly inebriated number in which he rails against the “Guv’ment,” making for the first act’s highlight — which isn’t saying much, alas. Things don’t get much better, musically or in terms of plot development, until the end, when Huck (Mark Lanyon) and escaped slave Jim (Michael Mandell) have hooked up with two con men (John Tillotson, Max Robinson), who sing of their bamboozling plans in the rousing “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.”
The second act is much more significant, as Huck struggles with his feelings of what’s “right,” and the con men do quite a bit of amusing damage. We also hear actress Catrice Joseph sing “How Blest We Are” at a funeral, and it’s a goosebump-inducing tour de force of gospel singing.
Also in the goosebumps department is Michael Mandell, the enormous and enormously gifted actor/singer who plays Jim. His deep, soulful voice shakes the rafters; one is unsure whether to be more in awe at that, or at his heartbreakingly honest performance as the gentle, simple-minded Jim.
Mark Lanyon holds his own as Huck, too, and the two have chemistry as unlikely friends.
One enjoys “Big River” because one enjoys the story Mark Twain wrote. The music, with only a few exceptions (“Worlds Apart” and “The Royal Nonesuch” being two more examples), is unspectacular, and the story sometimes seems like it’s floating aimlessly down a river, too. But its heart is in the right place, and the joyously sentimental finale brings everything together.
That Mark Twain, he sure knew how to write a musical. I wish he had written more before his untimely suicide. I mean, to shoot yourself after fighting all those bulls, and writing the classic "Little Women," and exposing the dangers in the meat-packing industry ... wow. What a life!