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Musical Theater Heritage puts on a mighty Big River

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As the crowd-pleasing, packed-house production of Big River demonstrates, Musical Theater Heritage is getting better as it grows. The company's take on Roger Miller's adaptation of Huckleberry Finn is, like Miller's score or Mark Twain's novel, somehow both humble and heroic, a likable affair that just happens to center on what might be the most powerful moment in all of American literature. With a sudden, transcendent moral certitude, Huck swallows hard, stares down his learning, and declares that he'd rather go to hell than betray his slave friend, Jim. MTH does that realization justice.

Sarah Crawford directs the show as an in-the-moment truth rather than a 21st-century sanctimony. It's about Huck (Seth Golay) and Jim (Mykel Hill) first; that it also rejects America's original sin only adds to the profoundness of that rejection. Huck is utterly apolitical. He only turns abolitionist because he's honest.

Watching this, my heart wells with Show Me State pride: The one Mark Twain we gave the world makes up for a host of Rush Limbaughs.

Crawford's company pulls it off without set, props or costumes. Instead of a traditional dramatic staging, the performers read their lines into stationary microphones in the style of a radio drama. With the help of songs, such as Miller's easygoing "River in the Rain," they also evoke the relaxed and dreamy lark of a river voyage. In one lovely scene, Huck and Jim marvel at the bright lights of "Saint Louie," a city of 20,000. With only faces and voices, Golay and Hill capture it for us.

Though we have to imagine much of the action, this is still MTH's most ambitious production. Rather than give us the highlights with commentary, as MTH sometimes does, Crawford and executive director George Harter have assembled a cast of 16 actors and singers (including gospel) who dash us through the entire show. The choral work, also directed by Crawford, is splendid, and Jeremy Watson conducts an excellent eight-member banjo, fiddle and jaw harp orchestra that I wish treated us with a longer overture.

Miller's songs have a homespun simplicity that's entirely at odds with modern show tunes. This is a relief. Miller, with his knack for road songs, folk melodies and the American vernacular, and Twain's great chatty road trip of a river novel make a natural pairing. His score boasts gospel and vaudeville, but its chief mode is the understated, plain-spoken, American folk music of "Muddy Water" and "River in the Rain."

There's a natural tension between Miller's old Americana and the Broadway-style belters to whom these songs are trusted, but the tension bears fruit. By definition, folk songs can be sung by anybody, and Miller's offer few of the flourishes and changes in key common to musical theater. Instead, they get big only when they deserve to get big, and Crawford's cast never tries to get bigger than the songs (except for Jerry Jay Cranford). The memorable climaxes in Big River always come from songs that build to them naturally. Jim's soulful "Free at Last" swells up like a river at flood time, growing ever more powerful as it goes.

Golay and Hill sing well, sometimes movingly. Most of Crawford's cast are up to their level. I adored Adam Branson's Tom Sawyer and the gee-whiz, musical-comedy voices of the boys in his gang, especially Doogin Brown. Kip Niven, unfortunately, plays Huck's pa with a strained, throaty roar that's probably meant to suggest Howlin' Wolf but comes across as Cookie Monster. Thanks to this, his comic song "Guv'ment" is the show's lone loser.

As the Duke and the King, two flimflamming transients who wear me out in the novel but are pleasing on the stage, Cranford and Craig Benton demonstrate perfectly divergent showstopping approaches. Sprightly imp Cranford stops a show like it's a passenger train — he seizes the brake wire and yanks, again and again, until it's damn well stopped. He always plays Cranford playing a showboating actor fool, but he stirs such joy doing so that I don't mean any of this as a complaint. Benton is just as funny, stopping the show himself as an idiot con man faking his way through a funeral elegy, but you never see him touch the brakes. Instead, Benton is funny because Mark Twain is funny.

On occasion, the staging limits Big River's impact. Long sequences of Jim in chains lose some power when the actor is kicked back in a chair with a handy bottle of water. Still, in the second act especially, Crawford's production is a triumph, one that plumbs deeper feeling than almost any show I've seen this year. The gospel finale thrills, and that singular moment of Huck saying the hell with his conscience and actually doing what's right well, that you have to feel.

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