“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.