A reviewer would be well served to listen to Huckleberry Finn:
So sharpen the points on the slings and arrows: "Big River," based on Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," show written by William Hauptman with music and lyrics by country music icon Roger Miller, is trite to the point of treacle.
"Huckleberry Finn" was published in 1885 and deals with the issues of slavery and inter-racial friendship in the 1840's, along the rivers of Twain's Missouri childhood. It is one of those rare pieces of literature that can be read at all ages, and each reading produces a new revelation. Twain infused Huckleberry's adventures with both humor and depth. The Theatreworks production offers some excellent acting by side characters, particularly the Duke (Jackson Davis) and the Dauphin (Martin Rojas-Dietrich), and Twain's potent zingers make point after understated point.
But the music! To accompany a story of such longing and personal and political upheaval, the show's producers selected a composer with a limited musical palette. Everybody loves Roger Miller songs when he is the artist -- "King of the Road" is a true classic. But "King of the Road" is not Huckleberry Finn, and Big River doesn't even have a "King of the Road." Several of the songs are downright insulting -- notably the idiotic spoof about Arkansas, and practically every attempt at black gospel. For the first time in memory, the score is actually hurt by the inclusion of a pit orchestra. When every song sounds the same, it does not help to add violins.
We would be remiss not to mention that Miller won a Tony Award for composition on Big River. Also, the audience, or certain members in the audience who stood up and cheered at every opportunity, appeared to love the show. We heard one member of the audience say to his companion: "Huck Finn is an American classic. I never read it."
We liked Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as the Widow Douglas and Sally Phelps. James Monroe Iglehart as Jim and Alex Goley as Huck were adequate by themselves, but didn't seem to have much chemistry as the raft-riding centers of the story. Gary S. Martinez as Pap Finn was over the top as Huck's drunken father. Instead of being the dangerous and evil parent that Twain had written, he was painted, like so much of this production, as a cute caricature of hillbilly denseness.
Robert Kelley has been hitting home run after home run for several years at Theatreworks. This time -- not so much.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Big River" Two Stars, Bless Their Heart, one for the Prince and one for the Dauphin. But if you loved Huck Finn as a boy, and even more as a man, you can't help feel sold down the river by this production.
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Through November 30