In Barrymore a single actor negotiates a sparsely set stage and has a packed house eating out of the palm of his hand. The musical Big River, at Actors' Playhouse, attempts to stir us on an entirely different scale -- with 22 actors playing 65 parts throughout 45 scene changes -- and it, too, thoroughly triumphs.

Never having seen this Tony Award-winning 1985 adaption of Mark Twain's picaresque novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I admit that I was skeptical. Pandemic as it is for the stage (and film, for that matter) to cannibalize plots from literature, I've never fully warmed to the idea, having to be convinced on a case-by-case basis. Great books have been re-envisioned as wonderful plays (and movies), but just as often the soul of a book gets lost in the translation to another medium, and another soul is not substituted in its place. In the case of Huck Finn becoming Big River, I was afraid that Mark Twain's biting social commentary about race relations, slavery, hypocrisy, and the brutality adults inflict on children would be sugarcoated.

I was wrong. The musical, and the exhilarating and polished production directed by David Arisco at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, remains true to the book's frontier spirit. William Hauptman's script successfully transposes to the stage some of Twain's literary techniques, such as first-person narration and colloquial language. It places Huck's friendship with Jim, a runaway slave, at its center, exploring Huck's moral dilemma about breaking the law in order to protect Jim. And it makes the classic novel its own by conveying much of the tale through Roger Miller's eclectic score -- yes, the Grammy Award-winner who brought the world the Sixties chart buster "King of the Road" -- which features country-and-western, folk, bluegrass, and gospel numbers.

As in print, Huck and Jim hop a raft and make their way down the Mississippi, encountering a pastiche of nineteenth-century American types from rogues to illiterates to other runaway slaves. David Trimble's riverbank-inspired set provides a moody backdrop to Huck and Jim's journey to freedom, especially when a big moon rises over the trees and water as the raft drifts downstream. And drift the raft ably does, back and forth across the stage without a hitch, contributing to the authenticity and seamlessness of the overall production.

Arisco wisely cast two veterans of national Big River productions in the title roles, and they are superb. Bill Shideler plays Huck as both guileless and independent. Admittedly, when he sings his first solo (the moving "Waiting for the Light to Shine"), Shideler's velvety tenor seems too stark a contrast to his spoken twang, but after the first few bars that no longer matters. As Jim, Darrin Lamont Byrd stands strong in the face of repeated humiliations and chokes us up when he speaks of his wife and children whom he plans to buy from their masters once he is free. His rich baritone informs his powerful solo "Free At Last," and harmonizes beautifully with Shideler's voice on "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain," and "Worlds Apart."

The rest of the cast, all local actors, have no trouble keeping pace with these stars. As a captured runaway slave traversing the river in a boat, Itanza Wooden almost steals the show when she sings the shattering spiritual "Crossing Over" with a voice that begins at her toes and ends up rocking the roof. Christy Boyd as Mary Jane Wilkes looks like a nineteenth-century portrait painting and sings like an angel; Arland Russell and Jerry Gulledge raucously portray the King and Duke, two of Twain's most outrageously comic creations who are also shameless con men; Savino Bellini, as Huck's violent alcoholic father, nearly brings down the house with his foot-stomping paean to anarchy, "Guv'ment." Terrell Hardcastle's feisty Tom Sawyer leads a gang of guys in the song and dance number "The Boys," for which Barbara LeGette provides rousingly athletic choreography reminiscent of the legendary Michael Kidd's work for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

After engineering an exhausting move last year from the theater's Kendall-based space to the Miracle Theatre in the Gables, artistic director Arisco mounted a listless season of musicals, thrillers, and comedies. Undeniably, he has had a good long rest over the summer because he is at the top of his form with this 1996-97 season opener. Having sat through so many hokey and sloppily-paced musicals at Actors' Playhouse and other theaters in recent years, I sometimes wonder why I think I love musical theater so much. This exuberant, celebratory Big River reminds me why.

Big River.
Book by William Hauptman; music and lyrics by Roger Miller; directed by David Arisco; with Darrin Lamont Byrd, Bill Shideler, Terrell Hardcastle, Jerry Gulledge, Arland Russell, Savino Bellini, and Christy Boyd. Through December 29. For information call 444-9293 or see "Calendar Listings."

Written by William Luce; directed by Gene Saks; with Christopher Plummer and Michael Mastro. Through December 1 at Parker Playhouse. Fort Lauderdale. (954-763-2444); through December 15 at Royal Poinciana Playhouse, Palm Beach (407-659-3310). For more information see "Calendar Listings.

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