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Encores Big River Musically Glorious As It Speaks To Our Past

Encores Big River Musically Glorious As It Speaks To Our Past
Kyle Scatliffe, Nicholas Barasch

Kyle Scatliffe, Nicholas Barasch Phot by Joan marcus

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.”

This is the statement that greets you at the beginning of the show. I originally saw Big River in 1985. The controversial aspects such as the N-word, the racial prejudice, the treatment of Jim and the other slaves barely phased me, but that was an era in which things weren’t taken so seriously. I am so glad that the Encore production has not gone politically correct and rewritten history, because the uncomfortableness I felt now, is why this needs to stay. If we don’t remember history then we are doomed to repeat it.

Encores’s version of this bluegrass, country, pop and gospel score by Roger Miller (“King of the Road”), is magnificently played by it’s onstage ten-piece orchestra conducted by Rob Berman and sung brilliantly by it’s cast. I absolutely loved John Foley on harmonica and Martha McDonnell on fiddle. The second act overture allow for orchestra members to shine.

The original book was tedious and in a word boring. I skipped the 1993 Broadway revival by Deaf West, just because of this. Rocco Landesman, one of the show’s original producers, has provided a streamlined concert adaptation of William Hauptman’s book, that allows the show to ebb and flow. Director Lear deBessonet and choreographer Josh Rhodes have kept the staging streamlined and energetic, yet with plenty of wonderful dance numbers to satisfy. The cast is off book, so it is more like a fully staged Broadway show. Allen Moyer shows how keeping it simple is more effective with his set design of movable wooden platforms. Even Jess Goldstein’s costumes are perfectly era appropriate.

 

18 year-old Nicholas Barasch, who I said was going places, proves my observation. He is endearing and commanding as Huck, the boy who wakes up to injustice, just not enough. Annie Golden (Orange is the New Black) and Cass Morgan (Pump Boys and Dinettes) play Miss Watson and Widow Douglas, the women who want the boy to turn his mind and soul to God, but Huck along with Tom Sawyer (Charlie Franklin, The Book of Mormon) want to be adventurous. The two boys prior to the shows beginning found gold and now Huck’s Pap (Wayne Duval, BrainDead) has returned, which causes Huck to stage his own death. Before he does Pap sings “Guv’ ment.”
Well, you dad gum guv’ment
You sorry so and so’s
You got your damn hands in every pocket
Of my clothes
Well you dad gum, dad gum, dad gum, guv’ment
Oh, don’t I you know
Oh, don’t you love ’em sometimes
You dad gum guv’ment
You better pay attention
You’re sittin’ up there like a fool’s convention
Well, you dad gum, dad gum, dad gum guv’ment
Oh don’t you know
Oh don’t you love ’em sometimes
Well, you soul sellin’ no good
Sons-of-a dead pan shoe fittin’ fire starters
I ought to tear your no good God dang
Preambulatory bone frame
And nail it to your guv’ment walls
All of you, you, bastards
You dad gum guv’ment
You sorry rakafratchits
You got yourself an itch
And you want me to scratch it
Well, you dad gum, dad gum, dad gum guv’ment
Oh, don t you know
Oh don’t you love ’em sometimes
You dad gum guv’ment
You sorry sons-of-bitches
You got your damn hands in every pocket of my britches
Well, you dad gum, dad gum, dad gum guv’ment
Oh don’t you know, don’t you love ’em sometimes
The crowd went wild referencing this song to todays current climate.
Christopher Sieber, David Pittu

Christopher Sieber, David Pittu

When Huck runs away he meets another runaway, Miss Watson slave Jim (Kyle Scatliffe, Les Misérables). Mr. Scatliffe brings a layer that is a quietly powerful portrayal of a man who wants to trust, but is always being betrayed. The two team up and after a spell they meet The Duke (Christopher Sieber) and The King (David Pittu), the traveling con artists. These men represent the worst in humanity black or white. They also try and steal the show with their humorous song and dance antics and monologues that are hilarious. The book succeeds, when showing us our failures and how corrupt we all are. Who steals the show is Katherine A. Guy, with her vocal gymnastics on“How Blest We Are.” Patrice Covington on ‘The Crossing” and Adrianna Hicks “Waiting for The Light to Shine,” also vocally shimmer. Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) has a moment as Mary Jane Wilkes, but here it is the black ensemble, especially the women who are given the songs that vibrate and make you take notice. The acting for the most part is left to the white folks.

Nicholas Barasch, Gizel Jimenez, Lauren Worsham,  Megan Masako Haley

Nicholas Barasch, Gizel Jimenez, Lauren Worsham, and Megan Masako Haley

Mr. Hauptman’s book is weak in a lot of areas, but Miller’s score is lush and worth listening to. The Encore production is Broadway worthy, but that would never happen in this climate, despite the fact it shows a great deal of where we have come from. “I see the same stars through my window/That you see through yours/But we’re worlds apart.”
You call still catch this majestic production until Sunday.
Big River: Encores; City Center, 131 W. 55th St.

Saturday February 11 2:00 PM
Saturday February 11 8:00 PM
Sunday February 12 2:00 PM
Sunday February 12 7:00 PM

 

Events

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

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