Adventure lurks right around the bend in "Big River."

Buoyed by Roger Miller's infectious bluegrass and country score, the musical captures Mark Twain's whimsy and charm if not his sharp wit. Gently directed by Robert Kelley, this big-hearted revival -- which runs through Dec. 30 at TheatreWorks -- sails along with honeyed vocals and lively performances, even if it doesn't quite connect with the big ideas and deep emotions that make "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" such a masterpiece.

The homespun musical gets off to a slow start with the antics of Tom Sawyer (Scott Reardon) and Huck Finn (Alex Goley) seeming a tad too adorable and the pace rather meandering. Casting grown men as boys can easily go awry, and it takes Goley and Reardon some time to find the right tone for these iconic characters.

William Hauptman's book truncates the novel's winding plot so haphazardly that ancillary characters sometimes eclipse our heroes in this picaresque romp. The revival tries so hard to be folksy and quaint that it loses the acid that made Twain famous.

Indeed, there's a little too much sugar in this retelling of the classic, when what the narrative craves is a little of the grit that Twain brought to bear. It takes a few beats to find that deeper subtext, but the destination is worth the wait and the music along the way is irresistibly toe-tapping.


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Huck is an abused child, running from his violent, drunken father Pap (Gary S. Martinez). He's a vagabond and a scamp who distrusts authority, joins forces with runaway slave Jim (James Monroe Iglehart) and sets off down the mighty Mississippi in search of a new life in the antebellum South. Along the way, they encounter a rogue's gallery of flimflam men, thugs and drifters.

The core of the epic is Huck's moral quandary. Should he help his friend find freedom or should he obey the law? If he makes the wrong call, he may well end up hanging from a cottonwood tree. Life on the Mississippi was anything but easygoing for those who doubted the ethics of slavery in the 1840s.

The stakes should be high here, but there's not enough tension in Huck's dealings with his bellicose father or in his encounters with slave hunters and thieves. The scenes with the con men the Duke (Jackson Davis) and the King (Martin Rojas Dietrich) drag, and Huck's encounters with romance fail to spark. The confrontations between Pap and Huck lack menace.

The musical doesn't really pick up speed until the scenes when Huck confronts the brutal realities of a society fueled by suffering. The show's juxtaposition of beautiful music and ugly racism is quite stirring.

Goley nails Huck's delight at mischief, but he fares less well capturing the boy's conflict over whether to follow the law of the land or the law of his heart.

Iglehart, a formidable talent who returns to Theatreworks after three years in "Memphis" on Broadway, makes the anthem "Free at Last" unforgettable. The actor gives Jim a quiet dignity that helps flesh out the underwritten character.

The camaraderie between Iglehart and Goley also gilds the scenes on the raft with a poignancy the rest of the story lacks.

Miller, a honky-tonk influenced songsmith best known for "King of the Road," gives this boisterous journey through Americana its soul.

In the haunting "The Crossing," a group of slaves sing after they have been captured and are returning to their misery. "River in the Rain" captures the unshakable bond between Huck and Jim.

But by far the most moving song in this show is the irresistible "Muddy Water," an epic that evokes Twain's love affair with the river both as a body of water and as a metaphor for the spirit of America.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4

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'Big River'

Music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, based on the novel by Mark Twain

Through: Dec. 30
Where: TheatreWorks,
Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305
Middlefield Rd. Palo Alto
Running time: 2 hours,
40 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $23-$73, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

theater review