KPBS AIRDATE: June 27, 1993
Sometimes, when they make a musical out of another piece of literature, it really sings. The new format expands and enhances the original, gives it new breath and life. “My Fair Lady” springs to mind; the world is richer for Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” How about what “Guys and Dolls” did for Damon Runyon? And, taking genre into account, we can make a very favorable comparison between “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Now we come to ” Big River ,” a fairly faithful rendering of Mark Twain’s picaresque 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” While it’s conscientious, earnest and spirited, more than anything it makes you think how wonderful the source is, how brilliant the book.
I wanted to run home and read it again, to see exactly how Twain created the mind of the best-known youthful character in world fiction. A kid who lives a fantasy life, escaping from authority, parents, school and church — smoking a pipe, doing what he wants, lazing on a raft down the mighty Mississip , having all sorts of wild adventures, and, in the meantime, making some dazzling observations about life, love, human nature, oppression, injustice, hypocrisy, bigotry, and all manner of things. It positively takes your breath away.
Starlight’s ” Big River ” doesn’t quite do that, but it isn’t Starlight’s fault. It’s a rousing production, really. The piece just doesn’t live up to its predecessor. Texas-born Nashville music king, Roger Miller has done a serviceable job. There are lots of warm-hearted country ballads, especially in the second act. And some rousing gospel and spirituals. A few large production numbers. But mostly small songs. Nothing you walk out humming and remember for days afterward. Few that could be recorded by others and hold up on their own.
William Hauptman’s book sticks pretty much to Twain, and that’s a blessing. The story is told in Huck’s voice and from Huck’s point of view. We see the highlights of his adventures — his time with the Widow Douglas, with Tom Sawyer and the boys, with his drunken father, Pap, with the wily impostors, the King and the Duke. But most of all, on the raft with the runaway slave, Jim, the big hulk of a sensitive guy who wants his family back — and his freedom.
Scott Westmoreland is a charming Huck, if a bit too charming. He doesn’t show enough of Huck’s depth, and there isn’t quite enough of the devilish twinkle in his eye. He looks, even with his ragged clothes, like a well-scrubbed California kid. But he moves very well, and he sings like the dickens.
As Jim, Michal Connor has a kind of quiet grace. He’s a bit stiff, but his singing is warm and powerful. Scott Dreier makes a wild, freckly Tom Sawyer, and his comic song, “Hand for the Hog,” is a riot. Christine Phelps is a lovely Mary Jane. Michael McCarty and Jim Marshall do deft work on the King and the Duke; they seem to be having a ball. And in the music department, Leatrice Andry and Tracy Hughes make those slave songs sparkle.
What didn’t sparkle quite enough for me was the River, which is the production’s centerpiece. The backdrop never hung flat, so the winding water undulated more than you’d like. But Heidi Landesman’s Tony Award-winning design is ever-so-creative, and well lit by Gregory Allen Hirsch. The effect was moving, in all senses of the word.
What could move you to leave, on the other hand, was the way Lindbergh Field overwhelmed Ole Man River . The planes were fast and furious on opening night, and more than usual, they could not be ignored.
This auspicious beginning to the Starlight’s 46th open-air season only points up how very much they need a new venue. Suspension of disbelief is getting harder all the time. I just wanted to float downstream, not have to tolerate jet stream.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.