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Review: A Meandering ‘Big River’ at Encores!

By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, February 14, 2017

Quite a few members of the theater community were scratching their heads when Encores! at New York City Center announced its season for this year. Two of the shows made perfect sense: the 1950s cult flop The Golden Apple and the long-forgotten 1930s Cole Porter musical, The New Yorkers. That’s what Encores! is presumably for: to resurrect unfairly neglected shows for a chance for new appreciation.

It was the third show selection that seemed quizzical: Big River. Suddenly we’re nostalgic for the 1980s? A time when this decidedly middling show could snag the Best Musical Tony in a manifestly slow year? The other nominees were Grind, Leader of the Pack, and Quilters. Yeah, I know. The pickings were so slim that season that the Best Actress and Best Actor in a Musical categories were dropped from the Tony proceedings entirely for lack of candidates.

Big River, which is based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, was one of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway back when I was a theater maven in training, so I have a certain nostalgic fondness for the show. But since the 1980s, Big River has virtually disappeared, except for a well-received 2003 revival from Deaf West Theatre and a 2008 mounting at the Goodspeed.

But even if the show had caught on in regional and educational theater, that still wouldn’t make it good. (Footloose, anyone?) The score is by Roger Miller, country and western songwriter of such hits as “King of the Road,” and it was his only musical theater score before his passing in 1992. As we’ve seen in recent years, writing a cohesive theater score and creating stand-alone pop songs are very different processes. Very few people have both sets of skills: Sara Bareilles stands pretty much alone in this sense, having crafting a varied and contextual musical-theater score for Waitress.

There are two sure signs of a poorly integrated musical. First, if you can listen to the score and not really be able to tell what’s going on in the show. Second, if you could remove the songs from the show and the story would still make sense. Both of these are true of Big River. The show starts with a reasonably contextual opening number in “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven.” But the rest of the score just gets more and more generic as the show progresses. The results are raft of melodically rich, but dramatically inert, blue grass songs and spirituals.

It’s almost as if Miller started the show actually caring about dramatic cohesion, then just lost interest as the process progressed. Even the show’s most memorable songs (such as “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain”) feature nonspecific lyrics and are of arguable relevance to the proceedings around them.

From the Encores! program notes, it sounds as though Miller had to be talked into writing the show, and then dragged his feet every step of the way. When gently prodded by the original producers to create songs in a more timely fashion, Miller responded that, and I paraphrase, that you don’t rush Rembrandt. That seems a bit odd coming from the man who wrote “Hand for the Hog.”

Even if one were to accede that Big River could pass as a play with music rather than a traditional musical, the play itself is no great shakes. William Hauptman’s book plods and meanders, without any real sense of forward motion.

Hauptmann does manage to make the connection between Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim somewhat touching during their interactions on the raft, but neither character feels fully realized.

The inert Encores! production of Big River certainly didn’t do the broad-brush songs and ambling script any favors. Director Lear DeBessonet’s static staging only seemed to make the many dull stretches in both acts of the show seem to go on even longer. There was some lively dancing at the top of the show from choreographer Josh Rhodes, but this sense of life conspicuously disappeared as the production ground ever more slowly toward the denouement.

What few joys this Encores! staging provided were in the casting, particularly in the delightful Nicholas Barasch as Huck Finn. Barasch is such a poised and charming young performer, as he has demonstrated in the recent Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and especially as Arpad in last season’s She Loves Me. Professional scene-stealers Christopher Sieber and David Pittu added much-needed vivacity to the second act as the Duke and the King, respectively.

The Encores! season continues in March with The New Yorkers and in May with The Golden Apple. Here’s hoping there’s a bit more worth rediscovering in those shows than with this dry and silty Big River.

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Big River, presented by Encores! at New York City Center on February 8-12, 2017. Music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain. Directed by Lear DeBessonet; choreography by Josh Rhodes; music direction by Rob Berman. Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson, Nicholas Barasch, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Wayne Duvall, Mike Evariste, Charlie Franklin, Annie Golden, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, David Pittu, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, Christopher Sieber, and Lauren Worsham.


Cover: Kyle Scatliffe and Nicholas Barasch in Encores! ‘Big River;’ photo: Joan Marcus.


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