Despite glorious voices, mighty ‘Big River’ musical gets simplistic staging at Mercury Theater

Director Christopher Chase Carter has delivered a simplistic take on the story, that lacks any sort of irony, satire or self-awareness — an anathema to Mark Twain’s entire oeuvre.

SHARE Despite glorious voices, mighty ‘Big River’ musical gets simplistic staging at Mercury Theater
Eric Amundson as Huck Finn and Curtis Bannister as Jim in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Mercury Theater Chicago.

Eric Amundson stars as Huck Finn and Curtis Bannister stars as Jim in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Mercury Theater Chicago.

Liz Lauren

A sideshow of slavery and slapstick, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Mercury Theater Chicago is an exquisitely performed yet completely unnecessary dusty corpse of musical theater that has been tragically exhumed, reanimated and forced to dance a tortured jig.

Mercury, a theater with a reputation for staging excellent work, would have done well to leave this piece, first staged in 1984, in the dustbin of history. In 2023, there are better works to stage.

Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” has meaning not only as an American classic that changed the landscape for children’s literature, but also as a controversial banned book, derided for its soft-pedaling of slavery and minstrel comedy, and for its liberal use of the N-word (explained with the euphemism “the word” in the theater’s lobby poster justifying its usage in the play). Ironically, racial slurs are the least offensive thing in Big River.

‘Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’

Big River

When: Through June 11

Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Tickets: $39-$85

Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Info: mercurytheaterchicago.com


The musical follows the book’s narrative of the young and rascally Huck Finn as he escapes the clutches of his abusive father and sets off on a raft down the Mississippi River with runaway slave Jim in tow in search of adventure. Along the way, they encounter a host of unsavory characters. Hijinks ensue, and Jim’s dreams of freedom float further and further away into the muddy shoals.

Somewhere in an alternate universe, there is an adaptation of this story that humanizes and renders Jim and the other enslaved characters as more than window dressing. That version recognizes that this story is the darkest of dark comedies, a devastating critique of whiteness, and leverages Twain’s work with a modicum of the bite and wit that Twain himself possessed.

Alas, we do not live in that universe, and director Christopher Chase Carter has delivered a simplistic take on the story that lacks any sort of irony, satire or self-awareness — an anathema to Twain’s entire oeuvre.

A pivotal scene where Tom Sawyer (Callan Roberts) overcomplicates setting Jim free for his own entertainment should be a devastating twist of the dagger, a recognition that his callous playfulness and Finn’s blind complicity is a metaphor for America’s approach to racism — but Carter directs the scene flat, as just another comedy sequence.

As Huck, Eric Amundson delivers an excellent performance full of pluck and heart that is guaranteed to make you smile. He’s delightful to watch, folksy and funny as a young man stumbling through his first few moral epiphanies despite himself. However, without an actual child actor in this role, we lose the terror that Jim experiences as a plaything of a boy making impulsive choices.

Cynthia Carter (foreground) and and Isis Elizabeth star as an enslaved mother and daughter ripped apart by the inhumanity of the world around them in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at Mercury Theater Chicago. Credit Liz Lauren

Cynthia Carter (foreground) and and Isis Elizabeth star as an enslaved mother and daughter ripped apart by the inhumanity of the world around them in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at Mercury Theater Chicago.

Liz Lauren

Curtis Bannister provides desperately needed gravitas as Jim, making a meal out of every line in a tragically underwritten role. When he delivers a heartwrenching monologue about the daughter he left behind, we yearn for the version of this musical where the Black characters are more than props. Right at the moment when we might feel a modicum of emotion, the story skips away like a rock on a pond to more light, bawdy humor. When Huck’s foolish decisions result in certain doom for Jim, there unfortunately isn’t enough space granted for Bannister in the direction to explore his complex emotions toward the child who is both his superior and ward, even though Bannister’s talent is clearly up to the task.

Make no mistake, this play is funny! Highlights include David Stobbe as Pap singing “Guv’ment,” Callan Roberts as Tom Sawyer singing “Hand for the Hog” (gotta love a pig song!) and no shortage of outlandishly hilarious gags. Stobbe and Gabriel Fries are a perfect pair of fools as the carpetbaggers The King and the Duke, who run scam after scam on the stereotypically ignorant, simple Southern folk. The effectiveness and thorough staging of the comedy scenes only serve to underscore how dramatic, nightmarishly traumatic scenes like an enslaved mother and daughter (devastatingly touching performances by Cynthia Carter and Isis Elizabeth, respectively) being brutally ripped apart feel tacked on and untethered to the story as a whole, due to the limitations of William Hauptman’s poorly written book.

Curtis Bannister stars as Jim in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Mercury Theater Chicago.

Curtis Bannister stars as Jim in “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Mercury Theater Chicago.

Liz Lauren

But the real highlight of the show is the music. The live musicians create an earthy, Southern, “down-home” feel that is warm and accessible. All of the actors are incredible vocalists and every song is a delight, especially the gospel numbers. When the showstopper “How Blest We Are” is sung by Isis Elizabeth and the Black cast, those achingly exquisite notes hold the entirety of the backstory, character development and humanity denied to the enslaved and the underwritten.

Ultimately a comedy tied around the neck of a slave, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” delivers the sparkle of the mighty Mississippi but the emotional depth of a brackish, backwater creek.

The Latest
The girl allegedly attacked three people on the Red Line on May 10. She was charged with robbery and aggravated battery. Other girls who were involved are still at large.
Dansby Swanson and Luis Vazquez also returned from injury for the Cubs.
ComEd says the outages are mainly in Cook, Winnebago and Stephenson counties. The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for nine counties in northern and northeast Illinois until midnight.
They were standing on the driveway of a home about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the 200 block of South Leamington Avenue when a Nissan drove by and someone from inside opened fire.