Huckleberry Finn may have been born in Missouri, but as far as the San Diego audience was concerned, they were welcoming home a native son when "Big River" opened at the Civic Theatre on Tuesday for a six-day run.

They had reason to be proud. When "Big River" tried its wings at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1984 (fresh from a world premiere directed by the Playhouse's artistic director, Des McAnuff, at the American Repertory Theatre), it seemed a symbol of everything that was right about San Diego theater.

This musical adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" seemed at the time more wholesome, heartwarming and visually exciting than anything on Broadway. Evidently Broadway thought so, too, because when the show traveled there in 1985, it garnered seven Tony Awards, including best musical, book, music and lyrics and direction.

The cynics may pooh-pooh the awards as having come in a dry musical year. They may poke fingers into the show's flabby middle, or even whisper that Tuesday night's standing ovation was, in part, sentimental.

But as "Big River" gets ready to fold its Broadway tents Sept. 20, just after it passes its 1,000th performance mark, it should also be given its due. And that, to its credit, is that it is a magical evening of theater, one that even in this season of Broadway spectacles, can't be touched for character and charm.

One of the most remarkable things about "Big River" is how it manages to be "big" and intimate at the same time. True to Twain's vision, the story centers around the unlikely, deepening friendship between two runaways, Huck, the town drunkard's son, and Jim, a slave searching for his freedom.

The oval screen behind Heidi Landesman's lovely, mobile period sets features a painting with features that shift under Richard Riddell's lighting to represent different locations in St. Petersburg, Mo. There is a wonderful moment when behind the screen, their edges misty, Huck's friends go out to search for his dead body, while Huck, hiding in a boat in front, eyes them through a spyglass.

Even more wonderful is the moment when Huck and Jim set out on their journey and the screen lifts to reveal the enormity of the big river itself--the awesome Mississippi.

Director Michael Greif, who acted as McAnuff's assistant director in the previous incarnations of the show, uses his experience to fine advantage. Aided by Patricia McGourty's richly varied, yet muted costumes, Janet Watson's choreography and Otts Munderloh's sound, the skilled and graceful 21-person ensemble plays 65 parts, creating texture and context without, for the most part, stealing the focus from the characters we care most about.

There is one distraction, though, that stands as the main weakness in William Hauptman's otherwise serviceable book. In the middle, just when we want to know more about Huck and Jim, two con men, played by Michael Calkins and Walker Joyce, take over the action. Calkins and Joyce don't do a bad job; it's just that much of their shenanigans seem thrown in to satisfy some tedious action quota.

It's a shame because the story of Huck and Jim's concomitant search for freedom (Jim's from chains of the body and Huck's from chains of "civilized" mores--is he going to hell, he wonders, for helping his friend escape?) is a story too good to be bled from.

In addition, this production has a simply wonderful Huck. From his yellow overalls to his dark straight hair standing up in a variety of directions, Romain Fruge perfectly conveys the confusion of an innocent struggling to reconcile the lessons of the schoolroom with the lessons of the river. Michael Edward-Stevens, who starred in the Playhouse's "Shout Up a Morning," projects leashed power as Jim. Unfortunately, strong as his performance is, there is the sense that he is given only enough to suggest, rather than prove, what he can do.

Roger Miller's songs add to the intimate feel of the show with their folksy rhythms. From "Guv'ment," a jazzy tirade nicely sung by Dale Radunz as Huck's Pap to Fruge's yearning "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" (in which he sounds like a cross between Jim Croce and James Taylor), Miller creates a many-colored musical fabric of blues, country and soft rock tones that fits the material to a tee.

The ringing spiritual and hymn-like compositions strengthen the slavery theme. Edward-Stevens is riveting with the soaring "Free at Last." That and "The Crossing," plaintively sung by a boatload of captured slaves (the song was added for the Broadway run), speak the tragedy of servitude more than anything in Hauptman's book.

Among the standouts in the excellent cast are Carolee Carmello as the sweet Mary Jane Wilkes and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as the stern Miss Watson. Barry Lee is so good as the impossibly irrepressible Tom Sawyer that he's enough to make one wish that someone would come up with a similarly conceived musical of "Tom Sawyer."

Greedy? Maybe. But delights like "Big River" lead to big dreams.

"BIG RIVER" Adapted from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Sets by Heidi Landesman. Costumes by Patricia McGourty. Lighting by Richard Riddell. Sound by Otts Munderloh. Incidental music by John Richard Lewis. Musical direction by Michael Rafter. Choreography by Janet Watson. Stage manager is Charles Collins. With Bruce Vernon Bradley, Thom Cagle, Michael Calkins, Carolee Carmello, Brian Evaret Chandler, "Cleo," Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Jordan Bowers, Michael Edward-Stevens, Frances Ford, Romain Fruge, Angela Hall, Christy Howard, Heidi Karol Johnson, Walker Joyce, Jill Keating, Robert Lambert, Barry Lee, Beth Musiker, Lawrence Patrick , Dale Radunz, Steven Riddle, Fred Sanders , Gwendolyn L. Stewart and Anthony R. Turner. At 8 p.m. Tuesday--Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday with Wednesday/Saturday matinees at 2. Closes Sunday. At the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego.

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