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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Big River’ Is No ‘Huck Finn’ but Is Hard to Fault

While it’s not a great musical, “Big River” did win seven Tonys in 1985, and it is based on a beloved classic, “Huckleberry Finn.” Judging from its appearance at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium last weekend, “Big River"--which plays Fullerton tonight--hasn’t dried up, but neither is it the natural wonder that you might expect from an adaptation of one of the mightiest of American novels.

Roger Miller’s score is erratic--and, even at its most lyrical, not particularly dramatic--so we’re left to wonder what this version is supposed to add to “Huckleberry Finn” that will compensate for the inevitable abridging. Competing in our minds with its own source material, “Big River” is bound to come up second-best.

Nevertheless, the current production--despite a paucity of major-league credits in the program bios--is hard to fault. Although it originated at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, Ill., and is scheduled to play in 125 cities through May, most of the talent is first-rate.

One might expect a bus-and-truck company to have difficulty adapting the “Big River” set--with Huck’s and Jim’s raft drifting around the front of the stage--to 125 different locations. But the raft was hardly becalmed in Pasadena. A couple of light cues were late, and the show sometimes sounded over-miked, but at least we could make out most of the lyrics--which is more than can be said for some of the productions of the California Music Theatre, which is based in this same auditorium.

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As Huck and Jim, Ty Hreben and Mark Lawrence sing beautifully. Furthermore, Hreben has an appealingly crooked smile and a gangly, quasi-adolescent stance, and Lawrence was able to project more than a glimmer of Jim’s anguish over the great gulf of Pasadena Civic’s oversize orchestra pit.

The smaller roles are capably filled, and Jonathan Swoboda’s musical direction is largely on target. The costumes are from the original designs by Patricia McGourty, and Thomas M. Beall’s sets follow much of Heidi Landesmann’s original design, departing most notably in the use of a scrim that depicts a map of the Mississippi River area, not a gilded picture frame. Curt Wollan directed.

“Big River” will be staged tonight at 8 p.m. at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Tickets: $17.50 to $22.50. Information: (714) 773-3371.


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