By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Mar 20, 2019 at 5:31 PM

There’s no doubt that the slightly scruffy Huck Finn (an astonishing Luke Brotherhood in the Clemens cast) could use some "civilizing," as his elderly guardian Widow Douglas (a chameleon-like Kat Wodtke) pointedly suggests with demanding thumps of her cane and an accusing finger pointed at Huck’s chest.

In First Stage’s soulful and enchanting production of "Big River," she sings admonishments in "Looka Here Huck," while many of her castmates join in the chorus and provide accompaniment on the fiddle, guitar, ukelele and washboard. Among other pronouncements, she asserts that Huck should go to school, eat all his vegetables and start behaving like a responsible adult. Of course this is Huck’s cue to playfully disobey, running off to the banks of the Mississippi River to commence loafing on the shore and fishing under the warm sun.

So begins Huck’s adventures in the 75-minute musical, a condensed and selectively edited version of the Broadway show, based on Mark Twain’s much lauded and much criticized work, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Challenged by libraries, schools and concerned citizens almost since its publication in 1885, the book has been removed from most high school reading lists because it was written in the vernacular of the time, which includes racial slurs that are offensive by modern standards. A satire of slavery, the story has an important anti-racist message but is peppered with problematic language and portrayals that some critics label as stereotypes.

In order to bring Twain’s creation to contemporary young audiences, the script has been simplified and reviewed by a panel of "consensus organizers" – more than 100 African-American civil rights and community activists – during its development.

The result is a much more straightforward portrait of the evolving relationship between Huck Finn and a runaway slave named Jim (the sublime DiMonte Henning) as they navigate the Mississippi river on a raft, hoping to land in a free state. It’s also a coming-of-age story where Huck has to find his way based on his own experiences instead of depending on family for guidance. The tale is viewed through a much wider lens as narrated by Alice (a strong Terynn Erby-Walker in the Clemens cast), a slave that Huck meets in a series of misadventures in Arkansas. In meta fashion, she holds a copy of Twain’s book in her hands as she speaks to the audience.

But the first thing that impresses about this production is the music, written by Rodger Miller and performed by music director/pianist Paul Helm, with generous assists from his multi-talented cast. The six adults and 12 young performers open the show with a rousing country/gospel song "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine" and continue to warm the theater with each subsequent folk and country-inspired number. As the runaway slave Jim, DiMonte Henning shows off his textured baritone in moving duets with Brotherhood’s Huck in "Muddy Water" and "Worlds Apart," as well as his haunting solo "Free at Last." Both vocally and physically, Henning’s resolve to fight for his freedom is formidable.

As Huck, Brotherhood accomplishes a subtle but significant transformation from a mischievous teen with shoulder-length straw-colored hair and a carefree lope, to a thoughtful young adult who is able to distinguish true friends from people who have the worst intentions, and the country’s unethical laws from his own moral imperatives. The young actor’s easy stage presence and confident tenor mesh fully with Huck’s persona.

As the recently orphaned Mary Jane, Georgina Pink also shows considerable poise and a fantastic voice, flouncing across the stage in a large pink antebellum gown. Singing together with Terynn Erby-Walker as her freed slave Alice, the two rock the rafters.

As much as Huck learns from Jim about the freedom due to all men, he learns even more from two ne’er-do-wells who invite themselves along for the ride on Huck’s raft. Known as King (a devilish Matt Daniels) and his chortling sidekick Duke (Chris Klopatek), these grifters on the run from the law are both larger than life in showmanship – they fancy themselves actors – and in their opportunistic schemes. Whether they are cheating a young heiress out of her fortune or shackling and stealing Jim so they can auction him off, these men are rotten to the core.

They illustrate plainly the difference between playing tricks on unsuspecting strangers and plunging them into ruin. Their mustache-curling plans feel melodramatic and comically evil at times, but they square with the ridiculous notion that a white man would be so entitled as to sell another human without a second thought.

Director Marti Gobel makes good use of her ensemble of young performers by employing them as a dynamic part of the scenery. Dressed in light gray shirts and ice blue yoga pants, the young people swirl and surge as the waves that lap up against and move the raft across the stage. Singing along in a few numbers, they form ripples in the river and tuck their heads tightly into their knees when not part of the central action, so as not to pull focus. It’s an imaginative way to add movement to the scene.

For those who may have been discouraged from reading the classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," this "Big River" is a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining way to engage with the big ideas in Twain’s indictment of slavery and the white culture that profited from it.