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Theatre Review: Big River


You probably know the main story of “Huckleberry Finn” – how an undomesticated teenage boy decides to go on an adventure rafting down the Mississippi River with the escaped slave Jim.  

And I’m guessing you’ve heard of Roger Miller, the Nashville songwriter famous for his hit “King of the Road.” Well, in 1985, Miller adapted Mark Twain’s classic into a musical. The result is “Big River,” a panoramic vision of rural life before the Civil War, with characters ranging from wealthy landowners to miserable slaves.

Musically, the show leans toward American styles – you’ll hear a bit of the blues and a fair amount of banjo picking. But the best numbers draw on gospel styles.

Huck sings

In terms of storytelling, Big River devotes a lot of time to Huck and Jim’s glorious trip rafting down the Mississippi, cooking fresh fish and cornbread over an open fire – a first-class adventure. And magnetic actor Philip Boykin, who plays Jim, tends to dominate their duets.

Huck and Jim sing

The growing friendship and respect between an older black man and a white teenage boy – despite the enormous social barriers stemming from slavery – make Mark Twain’s novel and this Broadway musical special.  And while America has been working its way through issues of racial equality for decades, the racial underpinnings of this Music Circus production are particularly resonant now, given the huge national discussion following the recent shootings in Charleston.

On opening night, when the shackles finally came off Big Jim’s wrists, and he responded with the soaring gospel number “Free at Last," the audience lit up with a huge spontaneous cheer. Sometimes, contemporary events transform an amiable summer musical into a show that communicates something about our nation and its turbulent history. This is one of those times. 

The Music Circus production of “Big River” continues at Sacramento’s Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, June 28th.

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