That original maverick, Huck Finn, is front and center telling his own story in Goodspeed Musicals’ satisfying staging of “Big River.” But it’s in the poignancy of fellow traveler and runaway slave Jim that the show finds its soul. Though this production may lack the unique perspective of the Deaf West Theater revival that landed on Broadway five years ago, the Goodspeed version stylishly revisits a rich American tale at a pivotal time in our political history.
While the 1985 tuner doesn’t quite fulfill the size and scope of its source material, “Big River” still provides many pleasures, serving as an easy and accessible introduction to Twain’s world and the novel’s restless, evolving boy wonder.
William Hauptman’s well-crafted book takes the best stories from Twain’s episodic novel set in 1840. Huck (Will Reynolds) is first seen in Missouri cavorting with his buddies, chafing under the care of the Widow Douglas (Mary Jo McConnell) and Miss Watson (Nancy Johnson) and fearing his drunken and delirious Pap (Kenneth Cavett), who mainly wants to put his grubby hands on Huck’s minor fortune. (The narrative picks up from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” where Huck and his friend Tom luck into a windfall.)
But the show frees itself of the cutes and hokiness once Huck hooks up with Jim (Russell Joel Brown) and they escape their present lives to take a raft down the Mississippi River: Jim in search of his hoped-for freedom; Huck, for the hell of it — but eventually to discover his own human heart.
Rob Ruggiero helms with sensitivity, style and energy, getting an added boost from John MacInnis’ lively choreography. The direction also makes time for intimate exchanges, finding moments of quiet grace among the story’s colorful characters.
Chief among them are the King (Ed Dixon) and the Duke (John Bolton), conmen befriended and then bamboozled by Huck. Dixon and Bolton add much needed oomph to the sagging second act, which lacks the richness of Roger Miller’s first act songs, such as “Muddy River,” “River in the Rain,” “I, Huckleberry, Me” and the Duke and King’s “When the Sun Goes Down in the South.”
The cast performs well throughout, though sometimes there’s a tendency to overplay. Reynolds is engagingly boyish despite his towering six-foot-plus size. As an outsider adolescent just trying to figure out his place in the world, Reynolds is both tough and tender and his singing blends beautifully, with Brown’s natural, gentle humanity as Jim. Brown is especially moving in his telling of his daughter’s affliction from scarlet fever, and his “Free at Last” is powerfully sung.
Jeremy Jordan also scores as a playful Tom Sawyer and offers a delightful comic solo in “Hand for the Hog.”
Michael Schweikardt goes for rustic realism in his sets. When his barn doors open to reveal a painterly depiction of a winding Mississippi (bathed in John Lasiter’s golden glow), the effect is stunning. David M. Lutken as a roaming stage musician gives the production a traditional folk presence and adds a sweet coda to the show.