Like the Mississippi itself, "Big River" "jus' keeps rollin' along." A musical based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" that opened last night at the O'Neill, it's amiable, tuneful, rambling and almost totally uninvolving.
The great American novel is a work whose breadth and incident seem to defy the conventions of the musical stage. Of its several movie treatments, only one has dared set it to music, and that was a failure. Possibly the closest it would have come to realization was the Maxwell Anderson-Kurt Weill "Raft on the River," cut short by Weill's untimely death after the completion of just five songs.
The songs for "Big River," with words and music by Roger Miller, are distinguished by their simplicity and a certain sophistication in what is wholly a country music score, ranging through waltzes, square-dance rhythms, chicken-scratching, gospel numbers and other variants on the form. Though they are hardly transporting - the closest they come is in the Huck and Jim duets "Words Apart" and "River in the Rain" - they fit the story snugly.
And William Hauptman's book is a decent enough condensation of the novel, though a great deal of the novel's flavor is lost and some of the alterations are questionable.
Daniel H. Jenkins, though young, is a bit mature for the role of young Huck, which he performs engagingly between snatches of narration taken from the book. Ron Richardson is much better as Huck's pal, the runaway slave, Jim.
But "Big River" achieves its best effects as pure theater, with the wholly theatrical and excellent comic performances of Rene Auberjonois and Bob Gunton as the Duke and the King, that pair of river grifters who attach themselves to Huck and Jim and almost succeed in swindling a young heiress (Patti Cohenour) out of her inheritance. Auberjonois is wonderfully funny in the Duke's garbled Shakespearean monologue, and a Falstaffian Gunton is equally entertaining as the glib con artist, while the two cut up delightfully in a song-and-dance number entitled "When the Sun Goes Down in the South."
In a large cast, adequate performances are given by a portly Susan Browning (once the slender "Barcelona" girl of "Company") as the Widow Douglas, Evalyn Baron as Miss Watson, John Goodman as Huck's good-for-nothing dad, Gordon Connell as both Twain and the doctor who treats Tom Sawyer's bullet wound (John Short is a bit strident as Sawyer), Carol Dennis, who does the gospel song, and all the rest. Des McAnuff has staged the show ably (with dance and fight scenes by, respectively, Janet Watson and B.H. Barry), and it has been very attractively designed (by Heidi Landesman) and costumed (by Patricia McGourty). The sound system is dreadfully annoying at times.
So what we're left with is a respectable, and reasonably honest version of Twain's classic that commits the unpardonable sin of being dull.
At a time when the Broadway musical seems to be as mythical a beast as the unicorn, what could be more natural than us actually having a musical myth, an epic musical, based on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the runaway slave Jim, and their strange adventures along the great Mississippi.
This is Big River, which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, and soon makes itself extremely welcome. It is welcome on many accounts, but chiefly for its simplicity, straightforwardness and general grasp of theatrical verities.
Big River flows rather than flies, but its current is in the right direction, its eddies in the right place, and even its sludge - for the pace does gurgle dangerously at times - more or less acceptable. Into each river a little silt must crawl.
The musical takes a story most of us know, and all of us can understand. It is the homespun saga of a boy, a river and a journey. It is an American myth, filled out and colored in with attractively unpretentious country-sounding music - agreeable, multi-purpose stuff unburdened by any clear identity tags of time or place.
Big River is much more a musical play than your ordinary common or prairie Broadway musical. Its tone is literary, its score lacks anything like killer punch, its story line is American-epic, and its staging is as important in itself as anything it stages.
At times the show does indeed recall such time-honored Americana-infused musicals as Shenandoah, but the defiantly countrified Roger Miller score, which features such Broadway oddities as a banjo and a harmonica, comes up as fresh and original, although far more Willie Nelson folksy than Ethel Merman-brash.
Perhaps the real source of Big River can be found in the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, for there is much the same attempt at fidelity to its literary origins, and, perhaps not remarkably, Mark Twain takes to the stage with much the same alacrity as did Charles Dickens.
THe picaresque adventures of Huck and Jim do have that Dickensian touch to them - of which Twain was well aware - and the sheer progression of this story of two traveling men, its actual narrative method, lends itself to the theater.
The book of the musical, by William Hauptman, is pretty fair to American literature's first anti-hero or non-conformist scamp. It shapes the story a tad more carefully than did Twain - certain villains can be seen to get their come-uppance - for, generally speaking, the theater cannot afford to be so discursive as a novel.
It also appears to place more emphasis on those two rapscallion traveling companions of our protagonists, the rascally King and Duke, the two con-men taking the Mississippi - and what Twain gleefully called its "greenhorns and flatheads" - for a ride.
Much of the novel is omitted, naturally. Yet the show is often meticulously faithful to Twain, even in such details as the riotous rodomontade of the villains, and dwells accurately and lovingly on, say, the Duke's Shakespearean soliloquy, before he introduces the infamous Nonesuch, or the King's delightful confusion between "orgies" and "obsequies" in a funeral oration.
Even Miller's own mostly adroit lyrics can, on occasion, very neatly home in on Twain, as in the splendidly rambunctious diatribe against guv'-ment offered by Huck's disreputable father, which sounds just like Twain set to music.
The director, the brilliant, unpredictable and flamboyant Des McAnuff, is a believer in epic theater, graphic symbols, grand gestures and broad canvases. One senses that the Mississippi is just the sort of place where he would choose to paddle his own canoe, and he takes Huck's raft on the flood.
The staging fascinates and is closely integrated with Heidi Landesman's scenery, which evokes both old engravings by, say, Currier & Ives, and some Brechtian theater of suggestion.
The scenic focus is the raft, and the river - beautifully lit by Richard Riddell - serpentinely winding like a seductive water snake behind it. It is a great image and dominates the show, permitting other scenes, and even craft, to be slid in on occasion.
It is Ridell's lighting that also catches the starlit magic of Twain's river, suspended at night like a ghost in a diamante cloak.
The costumes by Patricia McGour by cleverly hint at Twain's extravagance of description, and the performances, honed into team-like ensemble by McAnuff's coaching, glide into the staging as effortlessly as the settings.
McAnuff, Miller, Hauptman and Twain are lucky in the luminously innocent Huck of Daniel H. Jenkins and the warily honest Jim of Ron Richardson - although I am more than prepared to accept that luck had nothing to do with it. Anyway, both are perfect.
Matching their perfection is Rene Auberjonois as the pinnacle of crafty knavery as the Duke, John Goodman as a drunkenly disordered Pap Finn, and, only slightly less perfect, Bob Gunton's heaving heavy as the King.
Some of the smaller roles - Patti Cohenour as Mary Jane Wilkes and John Short's marvelous Tom Sawyer, complete with great hog-song, make nice exceptions - remain however disconcertingly small.
Yet everywhere one is conscious of the hand of McAnuff, the spirit of Twain and the rustic twangle and bucolic lyricism of the amiable and admirable Miller.
It is a quiet epic, as epics go, and even a somewhat unmythical myth, as myths are legended. But Twain was a quiet and unmythical humorist. And humor, as well as gentle beauty, is what is all carried along here by Big River.
''Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' is the last Broadway musical of the season - but, more important, it is the first that audiences can attend without fear of suffering either profound embarrassment or terminal boredom. This show has a lot going for it: a tuneful score by the country-music songsmith Roger Miller, exuberant performers and a gifted young director, Des McAnuff, who is full of clever ideas about how to bring Mark Twain's masterpiece to the stage.
If all of ''Big River'' were up to its high-water marks, the season might even have found the exciting new musical it desperately craves: The raw ingredients for such an achievement are on display at the Eugene O'Neill. But there are too many times, especially in the second act, when the imaginative flow of ''Big River'' slows to a trickle, and the show loses its promising way. While young theatergoers may well enjoy the entire bustling enterprise, adults can't be faulted for finding the evening a mixture of the modestly engaging and the tolerably bland.
At its best, ''Big River'' is much more faithful to its source than one might expect. The musical's creators understand that Twain's bottomless novel, in which a river journey limns the dark soul of a nation, is not merely a boy's adventure tale. When Huck and Jim board their raft to a rousing song called ''Muddy Water,'' Mr. McAnuff and his designer, Heidi Landesman, magically convey the characters' exhilaration at fleeing home; the moonlit river rises up on stage like a silver ribbon, tugging the audience and heroes alike into a mysterious, uncharted wilderness of the American spirit. In the similarly impressive opening scene, the whole social fabric of Twain's Missouri unfurls before us: As genteel townsfolk, browbeaten slaves and boisterous boys spill across the stage and into the auditorium, we see both the idyllic pleasures and unacknowledged injustices of the civilization from which Huck (Daniel H. Jenkins) and Jim (Ron Richardson) must escape.
If the makers of ''Big River'' can send us floating dreamily down the Mississippi or can summon up a vanished 19th-century world in a flash, it should be simple for them to accomplish such relatively easy tasks as telling the novel's plot, repeating its jokes and dramatizing its resonant love story between an outcast boy and a runaway slave. But, as it happens, ''Big River'' does the hard things well and the easy things sloppily. William Hauptman's script is as formulaic as Mr. McAnuff's staging is daring. Even as the production promises us the visionary sweep of Twain, the libretto provides a lengthy but comic-book-style digest of the novel that flattens out an American ''Ulysses'' into ''The Hardy Boys.''
Mr. Hauptman has made several dubious decisions. He attempts to include too many of the novel's anecdotes and, in so doing, must often truncate or rush them to the point where their comic payoff (and, at times, narrative thrust) is lost. Yet the few incidents he does leave out - the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, the vigilante lynching - are precisely those that are most essential to preserving the novel's bite. Worse, the libretto is so haphazardly structured that Jim and Huck sometimes seem to disappear: By the Act I finale, the show has shifted its focus away from its heroes to center instead on those vagrant con men, the Duke (Rene Auberjonois) and the King (Bob Gunton). Once that happens, not even a climactic Act II embrace can recharge the tidal thematic and emotional pull of the Huck-Jim bond.
The music and lyrics, often riding on giddy banjo-and-fiddle-flecked hoedown arrangements, at first rise well above the text. Mr. Miller writes in indigenous Southern and Western American idioms that are ideally expressive of Twain's characters and their salty vernacular. Act I contains one lively song after another, including a talking-blues diatribe against ''Guv'ment'' (flintily delivered by John Goodman as Pap Finn), a sweet spiritual for anonymous slaves and a haunting anthem (''River in the Rain'') in which Huck and Jim apotheosize the wonders of the mythic Mississippi.
But once the book bogs down irrevocably in Act II, Mr. Miller turns to cliches. Some irrelevant and arbitrarily inserted numbers, notably a puppy-love ballad for Huck and a passing female acquaintance (Patti Cohenour), seem to have been written for the pop charts rather than ''Big River.'' When Huck and Jim sing of how they are ''worlds apart'' or when Jim delivers a canned paean to freedom (''I wish I could spread my wings and fly!''), we've left Twain country behind for platitudinous musical-comedy land.
By Act II, even Miss Landesman's wondrous set, which conjures up both sunlit settlements and foggy nights downriver, runs out of surprises. But the cast by and large remains endearing. The powerful-voiced Mr. Richardson makes for a majestic Jim - although the slave is timidly and anachronistically bowdlerized here as an incipient 20th-century civil-rights activist. Mr. Auberjonois, looking like a Dr. Seuss drawing, and Mr. Gunton, resembling a dyspeptic Gabby Hayes, bring a devilish edge to their bunkum artists - most delightfully so when they perform their hammy burlesque renditions of Shakespeare for Arkansas rubes. There are also spiky cameo contributions from Carol Dennis, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Gordon Connell, William Youmans and, most crucially, John Short as a brash and cunning Tom Sawyer.
Mr. Jenkins's Huck is more problematic. While the performer has a nice voice and the right twang, he is too old to play a boy in his early teens - and too domesticated to convey a corrosive, conscience-stricken outsider who would rather light out for territory than be ''sivilized.'' But he's always charming company and, in that sense, he's the perfect Huck Finn for an ingratiating musical that can't quite bring itself to raise hell.