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PlayMakers has not done a musical in many a year, and they start back with one that has the mighty Mississip as a central character, along with three of the other most famous characters in American literature? Is there no limit to the ambition fueling this powerhouse company? If there is, it hasn't been reached yet, nor has the depth of director Joseph Haj's subtle thinking. In his direction of Big River, he has hooked into the wily elusive catfish of Freedom, and lets it run down river and up on a line of songs wound on a reel of preposterous incident, its iridescent scales flashing as it surges through life's muddy water. With Jack Herrick at the musical helm, the Red Clay Ramblers rollick and waltz us through a fabulous, artful, entertainment at once funny, poignant and thoughtful. It is enough to make a cynic repent, and if you don't get your tickets now, you will miss out on something swell. PRC has already added shows, but this is going to be a sell-out run.
Big River was adapted by William Hauptman from Mark Twain'sThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In recent years, controversy has flared about Twain's frequent use of "the N word" in the book's dialogue, and now there's a bowdlerized version from which it has been removed. Haj has more guts than that: He's left it in. Each time the word "nigger" is used on stage, so casually, so unthinkingly, by the characters, the production's focus on the concept of freedom—with its attendant qualities of respect and compassion—grows a little sharper. The book and the play are full of adventure and escapade, but their greatest adventure is toward a more comprehensive appreciation of humanity. Although the stage is dry, as Huck and Jim pole their famous raft, here cleverly conceived by McKay Coble, you can feel the float, the eddy, the backwash—you can almost smell the water and its creatures. You feel the same tug between human action and unalterable fate—the river will run to the sea—and along with Jim and Huck, learn a little better to distinguish between them. White Huck and black Jim find each other as humans, as friends, on that raft, and because of that, can take their later paths toward the kinds of freedom their souls require. All the singing and dancing and carrying on is just mighty fine gravy.
And we love us some gravy! Roger Miller made these songs back before country music got glittery, and lots of them are wonderful. Better yet, in 1984, when Big River was being worked up before heading to Broadway to win a long list of awards, the Red Clay Ramblers (as they were then constituted) were right there helping to develop the show. In this revival, it seems just perfectly natural for there to be a band upstage, and for feeling to burst out in song and dance (nice, unfussy, choreography by Casey Sams). Unlike many contemporary musicals, in which the heartless glitzy "numbers" break the storyline, in Big River the elements are integrated remarkably fully and have an artistic necessity that gives them power beyond their simple tunes and lyrics.
But, you may be wondering, can the actors sing? Oh yes. The large cast mixes PRC members, advanced students and regional actors, with special imports, and they sing so well that a person wouldn't mind having a cast recording of the show. Big-framed, big-voiced, dark brown David Aron Damane, as Jim, can croon, can blow the roof off, and everything between (his credits include Porgy and Bess with the New York City Opera). His voice is so warm. When he and skinny little white Jason Edward Cook, as Huck, twine their very different voices in harmony, as they do in "River in the Rain," it is almost shockingly beautiful. Cook is no slouch on his own, as he demonstrates so well in "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go." LaDawna Akins and Toshia Cunningham create vocal glory, as well. And then there's the large and irrepressible Jimmy Keiffer. He can't steal this show from Damane and Cook, but he comes close for a few minutes. As Huck's reprobate scoundrel of a father, he unleashes above the band's vamping a roaring tuneful tirade about the dad-gum "Guv'ment" that resonates wildly today.
So, yes, the actors can sing (and there's not a false moment in the acting), but beyond that, the band is correctly balanced—it never overwhelms the lyrics. The singers are wearing microphones, but new technology allows them to be so small as to be almost invisible in Charlie Morrison's dim-but-glowing, oil lamp-golden, lighting, and there were only a few places where they caused any distortion of the voices. In the acoustically strong Paul Green Theater, the actors don't need all that much help, so nothing is overdriven. This is a long way around to saying—you get to enjoy the music, rather than wishing you'd brought earplugs.
In fact, you get to enjoy everything, even when the lessons are hard. Suffering for art is all very well, but isn't it grand when art is spelled F-U-N?
Big River runs through April 24. For details, see the sidebar.