Broadway's engaging musical version of `Huck Finn'

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Musical play with music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, adapted from ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' by Mark Twain. Directed by Des McAnuff. ``Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, illustrates the challenges inherent in adapting a 19th-century American classic to the needs of 20th-century Broadway. The musical's creative collaborators have faced the challenge in straightforward fashion. They have extracted fragments of various sizes from Huck's own account of the adventurous raft cruise down the Mississippi with Jim, the runaway slave.

To begin with, Mark Twain (Gordon Connell) makes a silent, momentary appearance to glance approvingly at a projection of the author's famous prefatory Notice: ``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 in it will be shot.''

Although it would be unfair to report that adapter William Hauptman and his colleagues have disregarded the admonition, the novel's humanity provides a constant undercurrent for the flowing stream of comic and alarming adventures. The perils of the supposedly dead Huck (Daniel H. Jenkins) and the fugitive Jim (Ron Richardson) become evident early on in their near-encounter with a passing flatboat loaded with recaptured runaway slaves.

Missing the free state of Illinois in the fog and darkness, the two raftsmen drift on to Kentucky, where they are joined by fugitives of another kind, the King and the Duke (Bob Gunton and Rene Auberjonois in fine fettle). Having escaped one contingent of irate citizenry, the phony aristocrats proceed to work their nefarious con games on Arkansas provincials before suffering just but cruel deserts. ``Big River'' reaches its happy ending in a truncated version of the novel's ``mixed-up and splendid'' rescue of Jim.

Grammy Award-winning Roger Miller has provided an engaging assortment of mostly country-style songs, including rhythm, blues, and gospel. The orchestrations by Stephen Margoshes and Danny Troob, including an occasional harmonica-fiddle-guitar trio, respond to the Miller folk style. ``River in the Rain,'' a duet for Huck and Jim, and ``Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go,'' a trio for Huck, Jim, and Mary Jane Wilkes (Patti Cohenour), are among the more appealing compositions.

A cast of 21 actors -- most of whom fill multiple roles -- portray the 65 characters in this populous adapation. The performance guided by Des McAnuff achieves a reasonable believability. John Short does well enough by the irrepressible Tom, while Mr. Jenkins brings the requisite innocence, growing awareness, and a pleasant voice to the demanding narrator-protagonist role of Huck. As the unfailingly dignified and courageous Jim, Mr. Richardson rises to vocal heights in the second-act ``Free at Last.''

Besides its mobile set pieces and third-row runway, Miss Heidi Landesman's scenic design features a splendid pictorial-map curtain. Her spectacular riverscape backdrop emerges into full panoramic view during Jim and Huck's singing of ``Muddy Water.'' ``Big River'' has been dramatically lighted by Richard Riddell and furnished with trunkfuls of period costumes by Patricia McGourty. The musical direction and vocal arrangements are by Linda Twine; the incidental choreography is by Janet Watson.

Mark Twain did not say what would happen to people who turned ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' into a Broadway musical. That must be left to speculation.

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