Connect with us


Huck Finn classic ‘Big River’ gets a fresh, family-friendly look from Lyric Theatre



On a recent Saturday afternoon, Huck Finn and Jim were once again paddling along the “Muddy Water,” singing out their hopes of finding freedom somewhere along the mighty Mississippi River.  

As their motorized raft cruised across the Plaza Theatre stage, delighting many children in the audience, it was an historic moment for Oklahoma City’s venerable Lyric Theatre, which has been working for years to preserve an acclaimed musical based on a literary classic for future generations. 

“I love ‘Big River.’ I love it. I was in it when I was 19, I’ve directed (it) at Lyric, but it’s a problem right now to do it as written,” said Lyric Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron. 

“I want to make sure that people — parents particularly — know the topics that are going to be discussed in ‘Big River’ that have always been there. Now, with children in the audience … it is made for families to have a safe conversation about how we should behave in the world.” 

Maximus White stars as Jim and Alex Rodriguez as Huckleberry Finn in Lyric Theatre's production of 
"Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version."

At a time when how to present literary classics written in a different time to children living today is a topic of fierce debate, Lyric Theatre is launching its 60th anniversary season with the new “Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version,” with performances continuing through March 11 in the Plaza District.  

The show is a family-friendly version of “Big River,” the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical featuring music by Oklahoma’s own Roger Miller. The Country Music Hall of Famer and book writer William Hauptman adapted “Big River” from Mark Twain’s beloved and frequently banned 1885 novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

“It’s a show that people know, but it’s a different version. I think it really gives people a choice … and starts people on the path of becoming more discerning theatergoers,” said Baron, who is directing the show.

“Hopefully, they know that no matter what Lyric does, it’s going to be well-produced, thoughtfully created, and will tell a story that we feel is a conversation that people might want to have.” 

"Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version" performs at the Plaza Theatre.

Why is ‘Huckleberry Finn’ considered so controversial?  

In 1935, Ernest Hemingway declared that, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” 

Since it was first published on Feb. 18, 1885, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has proven popular, influential and controversial. Calls to ban the book because of its storyline about slavery and racism — and Twain’s frequent inclusion of racial slurs in telling that story — began within weeks of its publication and have continued over the decades. 

Set in pre-Civil War Missouri, the book centers on Huckleberry “Huck” Finn, a good-hearted but rebellious teenager who is the son of an abusive alcoholic, and the kind and intelligent Jim, an enslaved man who is trying to escape to Illinois, where slavery has been outlawed. The two runaways end up making the dangerous journey together on the Mississippi River as they each search for their freedom. 

The literary world recently has been rocked by controversy over the decision by publisher Penguin Random House to release new editions of classic children’s books by Roald Dahl that include altered passages about characters’ weight, mental health, gender and race. But “Huckleberry Finn” is no stranger to this sort of editing: In 2011, NewSouth Books announced the release of a new version of Twain’s novel that replaced the n-world — it appears more than 200 times in the book, which is narrated by Huck and written in the common language of Twain’s day — with the word “slave.” 

“There’s very offensive language. It’s not the intent, I believe, of Mark Twain, but it is a very one-sided, white view of that period of history,” Baron said during the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s February Forum focusing on the performing arts.  

“The musical cannot be that anymore. African American actors do not want to play enslaved people in the back while a white person talks about that situation. However, it doesn’t mean that the canon of musicals that we love can’t be done; it just needs to be revisited.”  

Nia Sier plays Alice in Lyric Theatre's production of 
"Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version."

How is Lyric Theatre revisiting ‘Big River’ with the musical’s writer?  

A century after “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published, the 1985 Broadway production of the musical “Big River” ran for more than 1,000 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book for Hauptman and Best Score for Miller, who created a slew of memorable bluegrass and old-timey country tunes to suit the story’s setting.  

“This is one of Oklahoma’s favorite shows: ‘Will Rogers Follies,’ ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Big River’ are the three big made-in-Oklahoma musicals. But also they weren’t written today, so how do we make them relevant to Oklahomans that are here right now?” Baron told The Oklahoman.  

“We’re going to do, I think, what Lyric has always done, but now is going to do even more in that we will always revisit classic musicals … along with introducing new works.”    

 Although Deaf West Theater revived “Big River” on Broadway in 2003, times have changed. In reviewing a 2017 concert version at New York City Center, Laura Collins-Hughes wrote in The New York Times that the show”feels like an awkward fit for this moment” — and not just because the musical echoes Twain’s use of a certain racial slur.  

The new version of “Big River” at Lyric is a co-production with Adventure Theatre MTC, the longest running children’s theater in the Washington, D.C., area, in association with Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals and First Stage Milwaukee.  

Baron credited Michael Bobbitt, former artistic director of Adventure Theatre MTC, with coming up with the idea of doing a Theater for Young Audiences version of “Big River” that would portray Huck and Jim as both teenagers, rather than featuring Huck as an adolescent and Jim as a grown man, as in the book and original musical.  

“He had the idea … to do a version for children that promotes understanding, using the example of kids to promote kindness and to talk about slavery in gentle, nonviolent ways so that children can be prepared for the racial conversations they’re going to have as adults,” said Baron, who also directed Adventure Theatre MTC’s 2019 production of the new version of “Big River.” 

Roger Miller, obviously, he’s passed away … but luckily, Bill (Hauptman) is still alive and was willing to change it.” 

Baron said he has continued to work with Hauptman to tweak the new version of “Big River.” A Texas native now based in New York, Hauptman, 80, traveled to OKC to attend two performances of Lyric’s production during opening week.   

“Michael Baron’s production of the new young adult version of the Tony Award-winning ‘Big River’ at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is fantastic. A show for the whole family,” Hauptman said in a statement.  

From left, Joshua Morgan Thompson plays The Duke and Mariah Warren as The King in Lyric Theatre's production of "Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version."

How is Lyric Theatre’s family-friendly version of ‘Big River?’ 

Baron said Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatricals, which owns the rights, is going to license “Big River: Theatre For Young Audiences Version” across the country.  

“No one’s going to do the adult version now. If someone wants to do that version, they’re going to have to relook at the material in-depth,” Baron said.

An add-on to Lyric’s five-show 2023 mainstage season, the family-friendly version of “Big River” is the fifth installment in Lyric’s Theatre for Young Audiences series, which was shelved for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

For Oklahomans who are both parents and theatergoers like myself, the series’ return has been eagerly awaited, and the new 70-minute rendition of “Big River” is a welcome addition to it.  

Suitable for children ages 6 and older as well as for adults — including those who may not be as familiar with this classic story as they’d like — the production features a talented cast of four adults and four teens. As Huck and Jim, respectively, Alex Rodriguez and Maxiumus White charmingly embody the unlikely yet enduring friendship that has made the book so beloved.  

Baron makes a bold casting choice tapping Mariah Warren as the scheming bad guy known as The King, but, as usual, the Oklahoma City performer makes everything she’s in better. Joshua Morgan Thompson is suitably slimy as her sidekick The Duke.   

As a diehard Miller fan, it’s a thrill to hear such a talented cast perform live his vivid songs, especially “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain.” Nia Sier steals the show as Alice, the enslaved friend of Mary Jane (Emmalee Hamilton), a sweet girl whose fatefully crosses path with Huck. Her voice soars to the rafters on the ode “How Blest We Are,” and she does fine work as one of the show’s narrators.  

Jeffrey Meek’s colorful period costume designs and Deb Sevigny’s beautiful yet pared-down set design capture the imagination, encouraging audiences climb on the back of the might river and ride along with Jim and Huck’s adventures.  


Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply