Hold the Dramamine

Big River

Music & Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman
Directed by Phill Greenland
New York Youth Theater
547 Greenwich St. (242-2822)
Non-union production (closes May 31)
Review by David Mackler

Big River, Roger Miller's musical version of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , was a Tony-winner on Broadway in a lean year. The production by the New York Youth Theater did not surmount all of the show's shortcomings, but in some areas it more than compensated.

The New York Youth Theater does a good service by exposing young people to performing and producing plays. For Big River, it assembled a group of young actors whose enthusiasm often outweighed their abilities, but there were also a couple of terrific performances -- by Kevin Thomas Conroy as Huck Finn and Dwayne Mann as Jim, the runaway slave. When it was the two of them going down that ole big river on their raft, the production came alive with excitement.

The production's major inspiration was in having Huck played by someone roughly the age of the character. And Conroy, with his hangdog look and sincere manner, succeeded in conveying Huck's growth as he went from a callow youth to a young man who sees racial injustice as the scourge it is. It was also a little odd, but essentially very right, to have Jim played as only a few years older than Huck -- to show how differently life treats different people. Mann had an ingenuousness that worked well with Jim's single-minded pursuit of freedom and his longing to be reunited with his wife and children. Huck and Jim's duet as they start their trip down the river ("Muddy Water") was a high point, and they also blended well in "River in the Rain." Even "Worlds Apart," an obvious song about their not being so different in spite of their differences, took on a rueful quality in their performance.

In fact, the whole production was much more successful musically than dramatically. The cast's voices were uniformly strong, especially Sharon Quinn's lament of a recaptured slave ("The Crossing"), and Amy Edelstein's song to Huck, "Leavin's Not The Only Way To Go." Part of the problem may be from trying to condense Twain down into a 2-1/2 hour musical, but partly it was the difference between acting and performing -- and some of the performing (by the adults as well as the kids) was overcooked. As Huck's father, Chip Brazil was playing to the youngest members of the audience (and unfortunately, Pap Finn is saddled with the score's worst song, "Guv'ment"), but his style worked better when he reappeared as The Duke. As Tom Sawyer, Christopher Seeber was excessively "country," although this did provide some comic relief, as did Chris Wagley as The King. Maria J. Brooks and Lorraine Stobbe were good as the well-meaning womenfolk Huck leaves behind.

Director Phill Greenland used the limited space of the theater well, spilling the action (and the large cast) into the aisles. Costumes (Theresa Carroll) and set design (Greenland) contributed to the ambience (especially going down the river in the fog). The New York Youth Theater is right to tackle such fare as Big River, with its strong themes. As the audience was advised, much of it is not politically correct. But its message came through loud and clear, culminating in the Martin Luther King-inspired finale, "Free At Last," where the cast's strong voices were truly thrilling.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler