I was intrigued when Mercury Theater Chicago announced that Artistic Director Christopher Chase Carter would be staging BIG RIVER, a 1984 musical adapted from Mark Twain’s ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. It seemed like an odd and bold choice given that it’s rarely produced and also given that it’s questionable if that novel ever needed to become a musical (but so it is, with book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller). Watching BIG RIVER, I was struck by how oddball of a show it is. While Mark Twain’s novel was considered ahead of its time for depicting the adventures of plucky young Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim, it’s still undoubtedly fraught. It’s hard not to watch the show and think that Huck has a strong case of “white savior” syndrome, and obviously for 2023 audiences, watching Huck’s moral dilemma about running away with a slave and worrying about Jim as “stolen property” is uncomfortable. In keeping with Twain’s novel, the musical also has frequent use of the “n-word.” That’s true to the source material, but it’s tough to hear nonetheless (Mercury’s lobby display helps explain the context of the show’s language and setting, but that underscores why BIG RIVER is a strange choice to stage).
If we’re considering the context of Twain’s original novel, BIG RIVER does expose the racism that he set out to reveal with the literature. But given that Twain’s revelations aren’t so revelatory now, that means the musical feels creaky for 2023. In terms of musical choices, Miller’s songs have a distinct Southern style to them. While the songs are well integrated with Hauptman’s book, they don’t necessarily emerge out of heightened emotional states like in most other musicals. The songs float out of the dialogue, but they don’t feel like a necessity to relay the characters’ emotions.
While Jim is easily the most interesting character on the stage, the second act plot is entirely plodding because it wastes an incredible amount of time on a side plot with a scheming, racist King and Duke. No offense to the nice comedic work of David Stobbe and Gabriel Fries in those roles, but that plot point really derails a good chunk of BIG RIVER. It also really detracts from the show’s intent to humanize Jim and depict an unusual, complicated relationship between a young white boy and a Black man.
Fortunately, Carter has assembled quite the cast for BIG RIVER. As Jim, Curtis Bannister is the undisputed star of the show. Bannister has a beautiful, deep, buttery tone that’s terrifically suited to Jim’s solo numbers and provides a pleasing contrast with Eric Amundson’s tenor vocals as Huck. He brings pathos and a deep amount of humanity to the role, and he’s a commanding performer. Amundson, a current undergraduate student at the Chicago College of the Performing Arts, has tons of pluck as Huck. He flits around the stage with wide-eyed enthusiasm and conveys Huck’s naive confidence delightfully. Together, Bannister and Amundson are a dynamic performing duo. Callan Roberts is great fun as Tom Sawyer, Huck’s rebellious friend who talks a big game but has little to show for it. Cynthia Carter and Isis Elizabeth are deeply moving as Alice and Alice’s Daughter, an enslaved mother and daughter who are separated in the show. Carter and Elizabeth both have beautiful, haunting vocals. Malcolm Ruhl’s music direction gives the vocals and the instrumentation plenty of personality, as well.
Overall, Mercury’s production has some fabulous performances, but it doesn’t entirely answer the question of why BIG RIVER needed to be brought out of the archives.
BIG RIVER plays at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, through June 11, 2023. Tickets are $39-$85. Visit MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com.