Twain-Miller BIG RIVER Just Keeps Rollin' Along

by David Cuthbert, Times Picayune

Literary and musical humorists collide winningly as the monarch of the Mississippi meets "The King of the Road" in "Big River."

Mark Twain is one of the immortals, but singer-songwriter Roger Miller was a popular entertainer of relatively short duration whose career peaked in the early '70s with "Dang Me," "England Swings" and "You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd." He was a Country-Western crossover star whose droll comic songs and wistful ballads set him apart; the "un-hokey Okey." 

t was producer Rocco Landesman's inspiration to have Miller write the music and lyrics for the 1985 musical adaptation of Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The show was (and is) hampered by a mediocre adaptation by William Hauptman, but Miller's buoyant score and an excellent cast (including John Goodman as Huck's abusive "Pap") made "Big River" a Tony Award-winning, two-year Broadway hit. Recently, California's Deaf West Theater created something of a sensation with a "Big River" that was both signed and sung.

 At Rivertown Repertory Theatre, "Big River" is in the capable hands of director Gary Rucker and a first-rate production team. The show looks good, sounds good and is enjoyable, often rousing family entertainment.

But at two hours and 45 minutes, it fairly cries out for cutting, fewer reprises and a brisker pace. And the doubling and tripling of roles may be a necessity, but harms what is otherwise a first-rate effort.

Although Scott Sauber and Rucker are too old for Huck and Tom Sawyer (especially when performing with actual teenagers), each has an eager, youthful vigor. In his few scenes, Rucker is particularly adept at finding comedy that eludes other players.

Sauber, a veteran of the church theater circuit, children's and community theater, connects big time with the role of Huck and with the audience. As both player and narrator, he displays a sweet sincerity, a solid, expressive tenor and an infectious sense of joy, yearning and discovery. He is the essence of charm itself and his unruly mop of curls doesn't hurt, either.

This version has the good fortune to have Tony Molina as runaway slave Jim, who injects reality and drama into the show. Molina shares some great songs with Sauber ("Muddy Water," "River in the Rain") and gets his own stirring solo, "Free at Last," with back-up singers and a striking staging of escalating candlelight, one of many memorable stage pictures Rucker creates.

 Robert Richardson and Marc Belloni make great, hammy con artists as the Duke and King, Leslie Limberg is a nicely sung Mary Jane and Cindy Ott offers an effective "How Blest We Are," the best of several gospel numbers.

Wayne Gonsoulin's Pap has a showstopper in the diatribe "Guv'ment," a song to which we can all relate, but his characterizations are familiar TV figures: Pap being Frank Fontaine's drunken Crazy Guggenheim and Sheriff Bell a spot-on Tim Conway. The best of the bouncey boys are Brett Thiele and the accomplished Kenneth Thompson, who shines in a short comic hayseed number called "Arkansas."

The impressively inventive rustic set design is by Chad Talkington, the phenomenal lighting by Michael J. Brown, the beautiful, pastoral scenic artistry by Michelle Levine and the attractive, even when rough-hewn costumes the expert work of Linda Fried.

The lively choreography is by Kelly Fouchi, while Lori De Witt and her 10-piece rockabilly band are ready for the Grand Ole Opry.