Arts & Theater

Theater review: ‘Big River’ stays true to Twain’s great story

Ben Fankhauser as Huckleberry Finn and Phillip Boykin as Jim in “Big River” produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion June 23-28, 2015.
Ben Fankhauser as Huckleberry Finn and Phillip Boykin as Jim in “Big River” produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion June 23-28, 2015. Photo by Charr Crail

The greatness of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” doesn’t waver. Though the 1884 novel originated in a different time, the contemporary resonance of the tale of a vagabond white boy accompanying a black runaway slave to freedom has unavoidable heft in the current social landscape. The canny, heart-tugging musical adaptation “Big River” now at Music Circus effectively transfers Twain’s humor, drama and unaffected human observation to the stage with a deep-rooted, magnificently sung production.

The original Broadway production opened April 25, 1985, and ran for more than two years, winning seven Tony Awards in 1985, including best musical, best book of musical and best musical score.

Narrated by Ben Fankhauser’s spirited Huck, director Michael Heitzman’s buoyant production embraces both the sentimentality and grit of William Hauptman’s book. Roger Miller’s lively, varied score embracing country and gospel elements anchors the story with a moving, soulful core. Fankhauser and production stay remarkably true to Twain’s thorny portrait of the conflicted Huck, who finds himself caught up in the murky area of “doing right.”

Huck’s personal morality and instincts push him into helping his friend Jim escape to freedom, but the idea that this is illegal and “wrong” weighs on him with a palpable dread. Yet the overwhelming, life-affirming presence of Phillip Boykin’s Jim crushes any justification of human bondage. Boykin, so affecting at Music Circus as Joe in 2013’s “Show Boat” and a Tony Award nominee for his work in “Porgy and Bess,” again showcases his world-class bass baritone voice throughout the production.

William Parry and Jeff Skowron have nifty turns as con men whom Huck and Jim meet on the river. Lizzie Klemperer makes an engaging Music Circus debut as Mary Jane Wilkes, a strong-willed young woman who provokes powerful reactions in Huck.

Nearly bringing down the house was vocal soloist Jennifer Leigh Warren, from the original Broadway cast, who soars on “How Blest We Are,” written for her by Roger Miller.

The show’s rough racial hopefulness rooted in material more than 100 years old felt simultaneously uplifting and frustrating despite a production and performances that were uniformly compelling.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Big River

  • What: The Music Circus production of the musical based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
  • Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
  • When: Continuing at 7:30 p.m. through Sunday; and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Cost: $40-$83
  • Information: (916) 557-1999,,
  • Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
  • Note: The production includes racially sensitive language