Those seven words from chapter 31 of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are among the most memorable in American literature.
At this point in the novel, Huck Finn has just realized the con artists, the Duke and Dauphin, have betrayed the runaway slave Jim and sold him into captivity. Jim will be transported back to Miss Watson if Huck Finn stands idly by.
At first, Huck thinks it’d be better to warn Miss Watson, so he writes a letter explaining the situation. Once he has the letter in his hands, however, Huck decides to tear it up and save his friend, Jim. Rather than listening to society’s warning that helping runaway slaves will lead to eternal damnation, and legal repercussions, Huck follows his conscience, and makes one of the most important moral decisions of his life.
Friendship and freedom are linked both in Twain’s novel and in the 1985 musical Big River by Roger Miller and William Hauptman. Rediscovered by The Mercury Theater Chicago, the seemingly forgotten musical presents a powerful and moving experience when produced with the universally professional expertise and human passion displayed by the Mercury company.
Twain’s novel takes place in Illinois, reason enough for a Chicago theater to produce the musical play version. And Illinois’ first two presidents, Lincoln and Grant, wrestled first-hand within their families’ tensions as the the nation’s passions exploded into war.
Bravely ignoring the novel’s historic controversial nature and epic staging demands, the Mercury Theatre Chicago decided Twain’s work was worth the risk.
The wonderful theatrical experience begins in the lobby where the audience is met by a series of posters and panels explaining the history of the novel’s composition and Twain’s own situation. Brilliantly curated by dramaturg G. Faye Grant, founder of the Hannibal, Missouri, African American Life and History Project, the display sets the tone for the riveting experience inside on the theater’s stage.
Director Christopher Chase Carter and Music Director Malcolm Ruhl show themselves masters of their respective arts. The auditory, physical, and histrionic movements are synchronized to a fare-thee-well. The production moves along like clockwork, always appropriately and compellingly adjusting rhythm to maximize the story’s impact.
The assembled cast is extraordinary. In the original production of 1985, for his performance of Jim, Ron Richardson won a Tony for Best Performer in a Musical. His performance could not possibly excel that of the Mercury’s Curtis Bannister. Mr. Bannister can do it all – sing, move, act, and radiate the humane soul around which the ensemble revolves. He is well-supported by his partner in crime, Eric Amundson ‘s Huck. Mr. Amundson is still a college student, a fact which suggests the theater will happily be seeing a lot of him in the years to come. The duets between Mr. Bannister and Mr. Amundson, especially “Muddy Water”, “River in the Rain”, and “Worlds Apart” are the show’s highlights and showcase the surprising excellence of Roger Miller’s music. Newcomer Amanda Handegan as Mary Jane is fortunate to join them for the beautiful “Leavin’s Not the Only way to Go.”
Other musical highlights include “The Crossing” sung by Cynthia Carter, Isis Elizabeth, and Darryl D’Angelo Jones, and “How Blest We Are” led by Isis Elizabeth and Cynthia Carter.
The versatile actors play the many roles well, easily navigating across the stunning unit setting of Jacqueline and Richard Penrod. The raft they have fabricated is a marvel. The dynamic moods are enhanced by the light design of Denise Karacewski and the lovely functional costumes of Marquecia Jordan.The only blip in an otherwise elegant production are two ill-fitting wigs.
Twain’s novel opens with Huck’s guardian, the widow Douglas, instructing Huck in the story of Moses in the bulrushes. The kindness of Pharoah’s daughter is echoed by the kindness of Ms. Douglas. And just as Moses would float down the river to his destiny, Huck and Jim drift down the Mississippi to theirs. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, as Huck will try to lead Jim out of a similar oppression. Some critics have labeled Huck the “Moses of the Missisippi”. The waters of the Nile and the Mississippi are necessary for the rebirths of the main characters, foreshadowing the new life awaiting in the Christian sacrament of baptism.
Without gilding the lily of Christian symbolism, the musical Big River offers a powerful story of redemption, salvation, and brotherhood.
Back when literature was a serious subject, worthy of discussion, a favorite pastime and often an occasion for spirited debate would be to nominate a book as The Great American Novel. Poet T. S. Eliot championed one: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece.” Author Ernest Hemingway went so far as to write, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” In 1896 the London Athenaeum called Twain’s book “one of the six greatest books written in America.”
You need to hurry to Big River.
NOTE: We have noted that while the symphony and opera audiences seem to have returned after the COVID panic, theater audiences seem to be reluctant to appear in the numbers they once did. That is too bad. The performers need you and your soul needs the beautiful stories being offered in the Chicago theaters.