If you’ve read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — and you almost certainly have, if you graduated from high school — then you know the gist of “Big River,” the musical based on Twain’s classic comic novel about race and identity.
The story follows the travels of young Huck, who’s resisting all efforts to tame him after the events of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and Jim, a runaway slave seeking refuge before he’s sold away from his family. They escape the oppressive forces of civilization on a raft, floating down the big, muddy Mississippi toward what they hope is freedom.
Staged for the first time in 1984, the musical — written by William Hauptman with music and lyrics by Roger Miller of “King of the Road” fame — won seven Tony Awards, including the prizes for best musical, best book and best original score. The book follows Twain’s tall tale fairly closely, excising characters for the sake of clarity but registering as a bit too simplistic for its own good, with cornpone humor that worked better in Twain’s hands. The score is steeped in bluegrass and country music, which fits nicely with the story’s Missouri roots, heightened by moments of transcendent, gospel-driven glory that sometimes overshadow the show’s more pedestrian numbers.
Slow Burn Theatre’s lively production of “Big River,” which runs through April 2 at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, reminds us just how show-stopping those gospel numbers can be. Led by artistic director and choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, Slow Burn excels at breathing life into works that may seem somewhat dated on the surface (such as last season’s terrific “Heathers: The Musical” or the more recent “Xanadu,” raucously staged at the tiny Abdo New River Room). “Big River” may not feel like a big musical anymore, but as always Fitzwater and his staff energize the material in a rewarding and crowd-pleasing way (just ask the opening night audience).
Slow Burn’s production largely relies on Ricky Cona making his Slow Burn debut as Huck and New York-based actor Brian Maurice Kinnard as Jim, and once again Fitzwater has hit the jackpot with his casting. When Huck and Jim sing together, on numbers like “Muddy Water” and the gorgeous “River in the Rain,” “Big River” is at its best, and you wish this ride down the Mississippi could last forever. Ensemble numbers — like the opening “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?,” which sets the stage for the shenanigans to come — are also a great deal of rousing fun.
The production also co-stars Carbonell Award nominee Matthew Korinko (best supporting actor for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) as The King and Victor Souffrant as The Duke, two con men who worm their way onto the raft with Huck and Jim and harbor nefarious intentions for both of them. They both work hard to make Act II’s opener “The Royal Nonesuch” work, but the setpiece feels like filler. Can we get back to the river now, please?
As always, the scenic design by Sean McClelland is outstanding and atmospheric. With help from lighting designer Rebecca Montero, he recreates the foggy banks of the river to stellar effect. Also a standout on opening night was Cameron Jordan, filling in as Tom Sawyer for David Matthew Klein, who was injured during Friday night’s preview. Jordan learned Tom’s lines, his fast-paced and funny song “Hand for the Hog” and the character’s choreography in a day, an impressive feat even if you remember his haunting work as the doomed Moritz in Slow Burn’s “Spring Awakening.” Like the Slow Burn company itself, Jordan makes you remember and applaud what good theater is all about.
If You Go
What: ‘Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain
When: Through April 2; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Amaturo Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Tickets: $47-$60; https://www.browardcenter.org/events