Review: Go with the flow at Big River

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Presented by Lone Tree Arts Center through May 4

Huck Finn, a wild-haired urchin, wants to be free of the constraints of civilization, represented by the Widow Douglas, who has adopted him and is determined to get him properly Christianized, and her steel-spined sister, Miss Watson. They live in a small, fictional Missouri town, where the townsfolk assure Huck in song that "You'll Never Get to Heaven." This is the musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's famous novel as adapted by Roger Miller (songs) and William Hauptman (book).

Jim's need for freedom goes deeper and darker than Huck's: He's a slave, owned by Miss Watson until, having heard that he was about to be sold, he escaped by night. He's determined to find work as a free man and somehow buy back the wife and children who were taken from him. After some adventures with his friend Tom Sawyer and a frightening encounter with his violent, drunken father, Huck, too, escapes -- slaughtering a pig and staining his father's shack with its blood so that everyone assumes he's been murdered.

Jim and Huck find themselves on a raft on the Mississippi and slowly begin to understand each other. Huck is a child of his times and, despite his rebelliousness, he has absorbed prevailing notions of morality. He's afraid that aiding a runaway slave is a sin that will fulfill the townfolks' prediction. But he's also good-hearted and instinctively on the side of the outsider and downtrodden, and he's unable to betray Jim to his pursuers.

At the heart of both Twain's novel and this musical is the relationship between the white boy and the adult black male, the ways they find to relate, and the things they learn from each other. This theme is expressed in a handful of fine songs in which the sounds of bluegrass and country marry those of gospel and blues: "River in the Rain," "Worlds Apart" and "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go," a melodious trio in which Huck's lighter voice is joined first by the sweet soprano of a young woman who's befriended him and then by Jim's resonant bass-baritone.

The theme is serious -- and so are the threats to Jim -- but there's a lot of comedy in this journey, too. At one point, Huck and Jim take two men on board: One claims to be the King of Bridgewater -- or, as he says it, Bilgewater; the other calls himself Duke and insists he's the long-lost Dauphin of France. These two are grifters -- wonderfully imagined by Twain -- whose lack of conscience is mitigated only by their utter ineptness as they stage a ludicrous medicine show and later attempt to defraud a family of its inheritance.

I was probably about Huck's age when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so my memory of it is dim -- but I have a sense that this feel-good show doesn't do full justice to Twain's acerbic wit and depth of imagination. The comic episodes spin by, sometimes acted out and sometimes narrated by Huck. They're sketchily written and broadly acted, so you don't really feel for Huck's innocent confusion, and with such lightweight pursuers, you know there's no real need to worry about Jim's plight.

But those deeper currents are communicated by the songs, and an anonymous singer (played by the glorious-voiced Felicia Fields) appears periodically, to haunting effect. The roles of Duke and King are brilliantly handled by Randy Moore and Mark Rubald, respectively -- two actors who, in very different ways, know exactly how to play an insane comic role to the hilarious hilt. Though a bit too speedy, Matt La Fontaine is a charming shyster as Tom, and Mack Shirilla is an appealing Huck. As Jim, Harvy Blanks is everything you could ask for: dignified, vulnerable, and with a fine singing voice. His description of a misunderstanding with his lost daughter is deeply moving.

Director Randal Myler is known for his work with musicals, including two that he co-wrote: Fire on the Mountain, about the hard lives of coal miners, and It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, which started life at the Denver Center Theatre Company and went on to acclaim in New York. Here Myler's three top-notch musicians -- Dave Keenan, Jerome Gilmer and Hunter Donnelly Renner -- create a glittering, forward-moving current that moves beneath the action like the great river itself. Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, runs through May 4, with shows at 7:30 p.m. April 30 and May 1, 8 p.m. May 2 and May 3, and 1:30 p.m. May 4 at the Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, 720-509-1000, lonetreeartscenter.org.

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