BENNINGTON, VT. — "Big River" was Broadway's introduction to country music singer-songwriter Roger Miller and Broadway rewarded the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"-based musical with seven Tony Awards — including one as best musical (richly deserved) and another to Miller, also richly deserved, for best score — out of nine nominations.
The musical — which originated at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. and then moved to LaJolla Playhouse in Southern California before opening on Broadway in April, 1985 — had a healthy run of 1,005 performances.
It hasn't shown up much since, especially in this neck of the woods, so it's a bit of a coincidence that two productions are set at opposite borders of Berkshire County — one at Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, Conn., which opens July 21; the other at Oldcastle Theatre Company where it opened over the weekend and is scheduled to run through July 24 in a production that shines a light on a work of musical theater that really ought to be produced more often.
Directed and choreographed by Tim Howard with resonant musical support from musical director John Foley and a four-piece ensemble, this beautifully performed, sublimely vocally balanced production fills Oldcastle's compactly configured space in engaging and inviting ways.
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" author Mark Twain is a presence here — literally in the figure of Gary Allan Poe; figuratively in catching the spirit of a book that uses sharp wit and penetrating satire to talk about a host of issues, not the least of which is hypocrisy, fear, mistrust and dehumanization of The Other. Indeed, in its use of the "n-----" word, potent imagery and the brutal, dispassionate, matter-of-fact ways in which the story's black characters are treated (no image in this production is more unsettling than that of runaway slave Jim, superbly played by Reji Woods, sitting on the raft, wrapped in burlap, his face painted pale blue, a sign draped around his neck reading 'beware sic furriner; do not touch') Howard's production connects the dots leading from the 1840s society that sandwiches Huck and Jim as they drift down the Mississippi on their raft — ostensibly toward Cairo, Ill. and freedom for Jim but winding up in Arkansas — and today.
Huck's good friend Tom Sawyer (John Fitzpatrick) sees life as one big adventure filled with heroic deeds, daring escapes. Huck, especially as played by Anthony Ingargiola with such fresh appeal, openness and ingenuousness, is more complex. He's known a different environment in his upbringing. He's a bit rootless and if he treats others, blacks, with a white man's entitlement, it's because he knows nothing else. It's what he;s seen. But he sees Jim as a human being.
As they drift down the Mississippi, Huck and Jim bond, become a team. As Jim talks about his plan to reach a free state and buying his wife and family out of slavery, Huck gains an appreciation for Jim as a human being; a valued and trusted friend and ally.
William Hauptman has adapted Twain's book with keen respect for the source and a savvy appreciation of its theatrical value. Miller's score is, by turns, buoyant, exuberant, haunting, unmistakably Miller in its rich melodic strains and frequent playful whimsy in his lyrics.
At the very least, this production certainly does Miller's score justice and the company — most of whom play multiple roles — is an accomplished, resourceful, true ensemble.
Howard's particular directorial achievement is approaching "Big River" with a deft, delicate touch. There is impressive balance here, not only in the musical numbers, but in the characterizations as well, even when some of those the characters are defined by excess — the two con men, the king and the duke, played with raffish delight by Peter Langstaff and Richard Howe.
"I'm just waiting for the light to shine; waiting for the light to shine," Huck sings. It's shining, Huck. It is definitely shining.
What: "Big River." Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel, "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Directed and choreographed by Tim Howard; musical director, John Foley
With (partial): Anthony Ingargiola, Reji Woods, Gary Allan Poe, Christine Decker, Sarah Robotham, Drew Davidson, John Fitzpatrick, Richard Howe, Peter Langstaff
Designers: Scott Cally, lighting; Roy Hamlin & Ursula McCarty, costume; Dan Courchaine, scenic; Cory Wheat, sound
Who: Oldcastle Theatre Company
Where: 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
When: Through July 24. Evenings — Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Thursday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 16 minutes (including one intermission)
Tickets: $37; students $12
How: (802) 447-0564; oldcastletheatre.org