'Big River' brings Twain to life in New Canaan
"Big River" won the Tony for best musical of 1985 and had a healthy run on Broadway, but with the passage of two decades it has fallen off the radar of all but the most devoted musical theater fans.
Director Melody Libonati hopes the big, new production she has put together for The Summer Theatre of New Canaan will make the adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" a new favorite musical of Fairfield County audiences.
The show is running at Waveny Park through August 1.
The director is especially fond of the country-flavored score by Roger Miller, the singer-songwriter whose 1960s hits included "King of the Road."
"Sadly, a lot of people don't remember his music," Libonati said of Miller, "but the score he did for this show is so beautiful and really unique for a Broadway musical."
In his book about the musicals of the past 30 years -- "The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen" -- Broadway historian Ethan Mordden praised the Miller score's mixure of "admirable sophistication of talent" with "the utmost simplicity of feeling."
"And that is the Twain style for certain," he added.
"Big River" is only the second musical that the New Canaan company has done outdoors in Waveny Park.
Libonati thinks Mark Twain, beautiful music and an evening in the park are a perfect mixture.
"Our production is unique, because it's done outside. Nature and the outdoors are a big part of the novel and we are really giving audiences the feeling of being somewhere along the Mississippi River," the director said.
Libonati believes the combination of a classic novel dealing with important social issues by a great literary figure who spent a good portion of his life in Connecticut made "Big River" an obvious follow-up to last summer's hit production of "Camelot."
"I've also loved this show since I saw it in the 1980s," Libonati said of the Twain adaptation.
"I knew it was great show with educational value and an emotional connection to our state. I felt like we just had to do it in this venue."
Libonati did a lot of research before "Big River" went into rehearsals.
"I re-read the book which the show follows very closely. I also researched Mark Twain and his connection to all of it. I wanted our production to be true to the original text," she said, adding that one of the venue's board members bought lots of copies of the book to be distributed in connection with the musical.
The director tried to organize a One Book/One Town celebration of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" that would be coordinated with the library but there just wasn't enough time to organize it.
She has been suggesting that parents have their teens read the book before or after they see the musical.
Libonati has no idea why "Big River" went out of fashion for many years and isn't always included on lists of notable modern Broadway musicals.
"I don't know what happened, but a lot of shows go out and then come back again. ... I do think that the time is always right for this show," she said.
Miller died before he could complete a second Broadway score.
"He did such a fine job of mixing country and bluegrass and gospel ... all of it written in the spirit of the book. He captures so much of Twain's poetry and emotion in the music and lyrics," Libonati said, adding that she is especially proud of the country band put together for her show, including a harmonica player from the original Broadway production.
The Waveny Park Theater is at 11 Park Road, New Canaan. Through Aug. 1. Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:45 p.m. Tickets $25-$50. To reserve seats and tables, go online to www.stonc.org.