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'River' Deep

[whitespace] Big River Domestic Woes: Huck (Jamison Stern) can't wait to get away from womenfolk (represented by Annmarie Martin).

David Allen

Twain's 'Huck' gets songified in 'Big River'

By Michael J. Vaughn

BROADWAY producer Rocco Landesman had one of those great spurts of genius when he brought together Mark Twain and country songwriter Roger Miller. The author of such memorably wacky tunes as "Do Wacka Do," "Dang Me" and "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd," Miller had the perfect scatological/ secret revolutionary instinct to make Twain's Huckleberry Finn sing. The resulting show, 1985's Big River, was treated to a big, romping production this weekend at American Musical Theater of San Jose. Miller proved to be a nice match for Twain in other ways as well. Given such an epic and perfectly self-sufficient storyline, it's nice to have a composer who's willing to supply brief, witty bursts of song and then get out of the way. Two of the snappier tunes--"Arkansas" and Tom Sawyer's "Hand for the Hog" ("You can teach a hog to smoke a cigarette")--are not much more than musical cameos.

Jamison Stern provides a user-friendly Huck outfitted with an almost-constant look of chagrin and a mastery of the comic narrative aside. He is joined by Stacey Robinson, who gives the slave Jim a dignified presence and a baritone as deep and wide as the Mississippi. And Nathan Wheeler throws in with a Carrot Top Tom Sawyer, always stirring things up with overly complicated plans. There are 50-some characters in the show, and many of them deliver delightful contributions. Lyle Kanouse makes both Pap Finn and con man preacher the King towering examples of idiocy. David Ruprecht as conman/actor the Duke performs an inspired butchery of Shakespeare. And Annmarie Martin plays their young victim, Mary Jane Wilkes, with a heartbreakingly gorgeous country voice--especially in "You Oughta Be Here With Me," a song of grief for her recently departed father (and proof that Miller could be sincere, too).

Heidi Landesman drapes the show with antiqued maps and an evocative 19th-century riverscape, while director Michael Tapley's cast and crew apply an intricate choreography of rafts, piers and banks to turn the Center for the Performing Arts stage into those famed muddy waters. The star is still Twain, however, pared to workable proportions by writer William Hauptmann. Like his own Tom Sawyer, Twain saw no point in simplifying things when he could glory in the world's complexity, and it is a mark of his continuing relevance that liberals and conservatives alike misinterpret his intentions to this day. A white child helping an escaped slave is still a radical notion, especially when that white child freely reveals his own upbringing by saying things like "It don't seem natural, but Jim cared for his people the same as white folks do for theirs." Soon to be banned at a school near you.

Big River plays Tuesday-Thursday at 8pm (plus 2pm March 24), Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2 and 8:30pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm (March 28, 2pm only) through March 28 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $35-$50. (888/455-SHOW or 408/998-BASS).

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From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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