BIG RIVER: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Apple Tree Theatre. This 1985 Broadway hit was originally conceived partly as a vehicle for tunesmith Roger Miller and partly as a showcase for designer Heidi Landesman’s sweeping depiction of the Mississippi River. Apple Tree’s intimate vest-pocket production should by rights draw audiences more deeply into Mark Twain’s coming-of-age tale in the pre-Civil War south, as a young white boy helps his black friend escape slavery. But director Eileen Boevers’s brisk, broad, almost children’s-theater approach lacks nuance and emotional depth. William Hauptman’s story-theater script, which has Huck Finn describing his escapades as he experiences them, comes off as lightweight and aloof; Patrick Sarb in the lead is engaging but shallow, too often indulging in aw-shucks shit-kicker stereotypes. Nathaniel Stampley Jr. as Jim delivers a performance of rich texture and gravity, but neither Sarb nor anyone else in the cast meets his standard; Larry Yando hams it up as the crooked actor who joins Huck and Jim on their journey, but his hamminess undermines the horror of his cruel comeuppance, being tarred and feathered.
Miller’s score, however, remains a rich fusion of country, gospel, and pop, with graceful melodies, satisfying harmonies, and alternately tender and funny lyrics. Musical director Malcolm Ruhl’s bluegrass-flavored arrangements for guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and Dobro add to the music’s flavor despite the occasional intrusion of a tinny-sounding electric piano.