The music of Roger Miller has long been a secret pleasure for me. His hits are pretty hokey and have a novelty-song feel. Some, the often-covered “Dang Me” for instance, have lyrics that are cringeworthy today. Like this: “Dang me, dang me / They oughta take a rope and hang me / High from the highest tree / Woman, would you weep for me?” But man, he could write a catchy tune. When I knew I was up for seeing “Big River,” the musical based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with songs by Miller, I dived back into the singer-songwriter’s music and it’s been in my head ever since. Even more so since seeing Mercury Theater’s crisply moving, superbly sung and highly entertaining production of the show that swept the 1985 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Despite its enduring success, “Big River” did not fit easily into any familiar Broadway mode. Miller, who had won eleven Grammys as a solo performer, told interviewers that before working on the show he had only seen one play in his life. He was asked to compose for the show at a time when he had not written a new song in years. And “Big River”’s producers, writer and director had no Broadway experience. Though country music now has a comfortable place in musicals, that wasn’t the case when the Big Mud first came to the Great White Way. The show earned its success with an efficient paring-down of Twain’s classic that captures a good dose of the writer’s wit and clever (anti-)moralizing, with a large cast of characters who are nevertheless individually drawn. Huck, Tom Sawyer, Jim the slave, and evil clowns Duke and Prince drive the action more through their strong characterizations than through the show’s plot, which like Twain’s, is propulsive but simple. Huck, played endearingly by Eric Amundson and Jim, played with sympathy and dignity by Curtis Bannister, are on stage for also the entirety of the show and make a convincing pair of unlikely friends. Bannister has of late been one of the finest and strongest male singers on Chicago stages and he handles Miller’s song with beauty and grace. Amundson is no less impressive. In the script and in song he is called on to be funny, innocently wise and empathetic. Duets between the pair are highlights of the show. The ensemble singing, under music director Malcolm Ruhl, is also tight and strong, from full-cast hymns to old-timey trios. Some terrific yodeling gets in there, too. Fine choreography by Ariel Etana Triunfo draws on country dance traditions without crossing over into an overly artsy Agnes de Mille mode.
Past productions elsewhere have left reviewers uneasy. Can the mostly comic entertainment succeed today with a slave as a main character? How about when that dreaded slur is used liberally by the characters on stage? Director Christopher Chase Carter has found a path, through his richly drawn characters, to vanquish nearly all such reservations. As for Miller’s music, it is arguably the best he ever wrote.
“Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, mercurytheaterchicago.com. Through June 11.