Nicholas Barasch is virtually peerless. At only eighteen, he walks a delicate line between child actor and adult actor that no one else approaches. His youthful vigor and lack of self-consciousness brought immense charm to his performance as Arpad in Roundabout’s revival of She Loves Me last season, but that performance was not just notable for its precocious teenager comedy, it was a controlled and deliberate piece of acting. Barasch is somehow able to savor the joys of youth while grounding that freewheeling, limb-dangling spirit in the thoughtful, measured trappings of adulthood.
So far, Barasch has had no better outlet than in his turn as Huckleberry Finn in Encores! concert staging of Big River. Here is a monster of a role for someone his age; he is on stage from beginning to end with only a few brief respites, and Huck is constantly talking or singing or dancing his way around the south. The production sits on his shoulders and Barasch delivers a performance that effectively negotiates the turns of William Haputman and Roger Miller’s book and score like Huck navigates his raft down the Mississippi. He is equally believable as Tom Sawyer’s mischief-stirring friend as he is when he is having heart-to-heart conversations with Jim (Kyle Scatliffe), the runaway slave with whom he shares his journey.
His singing voice is pure and strong, full of color and emotion, and he does not just sing with his mouth and throat, but with his whole body, feeling the pull of the melodic current, riding the thrums and lurches of Miller’s country music-inflected score. When Barasch and Scatliffe join their voices together, the blend of Scatliffe’s rich baritone and Barasch’s floating tenor creates an aural manifestation of the musical’s thematic creed: they may look (and sound) dissimilar, but they have a great deal in common.
It is unfortunate, then, that the material does not afford Scatliffe a role as layered as Huck. This is the central problem of Big River. When they adapted Twain’s 1884 novel over 100 years later, Hauptman and Miller did not do anything substantial to balance Huck’s story with Jim’s. Jim is almost entirely inactive. He makes a plan to run away once he discovers his owner is planning to sell him, but Huck runs into him at the last minute and co-opts Jim’s plan for his own gain. Huck needs to get away from his drunken father, so he uses Jim’s raft and supplies, telling him he needs to go along so that people won’t recognize Jim as a runaway slave. This reeks of the white savior complex in a contemporary viewing and was the moment when the musical began to lose me. What follows is scene after scene of Huck wrestling with whether or not he should continue to protect Jim, despite their pact and friendship. Jim confesses that, once free, he is planning to raise enough money to buy his wife and children out of slavery or, if he can’t make enough money, he is going to hire an abolitionist to steal them. When Huck hears this, he considers turning Jim into the authorities because Jim is planning to steal someone’s “property.” How are we to view this in 2017? What are we to make of Huck’s moral dilemma? Over the course of the musical, Huck has an awakening and realizes that Jim is not so different from himself, but this only highlights that Jim’s sole function is to aid Huck’s enlightenment. Why should Huck be applauded for reaching the position he should have taken in the beginning?
In the first act, director Lear deBessonet is able to stage the scenes leading to Huck and Jim’s escape with a mounting sense of urgency and momentum. By the time they push off from the river bank, the whoosh of release feels like they are actually going somewhere, although, in reality, the actors are standing stationary on a wooden platform. Throughout, deBessonet stages each scene with a frankness that presents the meat of the material without unnecessary frills or flash. If the first act is fluid and the second act sputters along, it is only because the material is lopsided; the first act is streamlined in Huck and Jim’s goal to float down the Mississippi, whereas the second act is a series of scenes on dry land that veer from this ultimate motive. Most admirably, deBessonet keeps all of the performances rooted in an authenticity that could easily have been eschewed given the material’s down-south hokum. The actors do not drown under their dialects or sacrifice too much of their performances in the attempt to replicate the simplicity of country folk. Each character on the stage feels truthful.
Roger Miller’s score is stacked with winning tunes and they are performed exceptionally by the cast and Rob Berman’s orchestra. Hearing the songs, it is easy to see how Encores! thought Big River would be prime material to take its stage, but looking beyond the songs, it is not entirely clear what worth this musical has in today’s society. It ultimately makes a point about accepting other races, but it only does this in the broadest of strokes and after a considerable amount of unchecked racism. Yes, it is truthful “to the time” and is based on a classic novel. Yes, we (read: white people) thought differently about race relations when Big River was first produced in the 1980s. No, it does not have anything to add to our contemporary conversation.