Does a 1985 musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s then-100-year-old odyssey through the antebellum South still have something to offer? A lively, deeply moving revival of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura makes a compelling case for the show’s continued relevance.
The original Broadway production’s seven Tony Awards (including one for best musical) notwithstanding, “Big River” has always been an unlikely candidate for a blockbuster. William Hauptman’s adaptation faithfully honors the meandering, episodic structure of Twain’s novel. Roger Miller’s score, an artfully crafted regional mix of country, bluegrass, pop and gospel, is woven so seamlessly into these scenic snapshots that it doesn’t lend itself to stand-alone hits. The effect is more like a story with music.
In revisiting the piece, directors Kirby and Beverly Ward lean into that difference with an environmental staging that emphasizes intimacy over spectacle.
An immersive venue reconfiguration by scenic designer Mike Billings places some of the audience onstage flanking the six-piece band. Beneath an ivy-covered ceiling, panoramic projections of moonlit waters evoke the rolling Mississippi River, with a raft platform extending into the seating area. Raised wooden planks spanning the widened aisles serve as loading docks for the 22-member cast’s entrances and exits in various directions.
All of which adds a close, personal dimension to Huck Finn’s opening invitation to join him and a troupe of performers for their enactment of a story with an urgent lesson about tolerance.
As a slightly older but wiser Huck, Josey Montana McCoy proves an engaging raconteur, adeptly spinning Twain’s folksy vernacular — particularly when it involves the hypocrisies of “civilized” society. Between the strict moralizing of his adopted guardian (Teri Bibb) and the menace of his alcoholic father (Joseph Fuqua), Huck is driven to fake his own death and seek anonymous freedom along the Big River.
It may be Huck’s story, but the show’s most riveting performance comes from David Aron Damane as Jim, the runaway slave who accidentally becomes Huck’s traveling companion. With a deep, resonant voice and charismatic dignity, Damane commands attention, and his solos are showstoppers.
The supporting performance bench runs almost as deep as the Mississippi, with pinpoint comic turns from Larry Cedar and Richard Hebert as the con artists who enlist Huck in their scams.
Several members from musical director Abdul Hamid Royal’s first-rate ensemble take on narrative roles, most notably fiddler Cassidy Stirtz as a con victim who spurs Huck to romantic chivalry. On the flip side, Brandon Ruiter’s Tom Sawyer doubles on bass.
Making the most of limited stage time, singers Renn Woods and Summer Greer bring poignancy to the plight of enslaved and cruelly separated mother and daughter.
In its fidelity to Twain’s novel, the show does include frequent use of the N-word and less prominent roles for the black characters. The throughline in Huck’s sprawling adventures is the hard-won conquest of his own racial prejudice — so baked in that it takes most of the show for him to recognize Jim as a fellow human being. It’s a principle that many may have assumed was universally accepted long ago. Nowadays, not so much.
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; extended through Nov. 17
Info: (805) 667-2900 or rubicontheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
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