"Big River," seen last summer at the La Jolla Playhouse, opened on Broadway on Thursday night, to grateful, if not ecstatic, reviews.
It has not been much of a season for musicals on Broadway. While no world-beater, this new musical version of "Huckleberry Finn" certainly beat such disasters as "The Three Musketeers" and "Harrigan and Hart," the critics agreed.
Frank Rich in the New York Times: "The first (musical of the season) that audiences can attend without fear of suffering either profound embarrassment or terminal boredom . . . if all of 'Big River' were up to its high-water marks, the season might even have found the exciting new musical it desperately craves."
The New York Post's Clive Barnes called William Hauptman and Roger Miller's musical "welcome on many counts, but chiefly for its simplicity, straightforwardness and its grasp of theatrical verities."
Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press called it "the most imaginative new musical seen on Broadway this season," adding that, of course, that wasn't saying too much in itself. But in general he found the show, staged by the La Jolla Playhouse's artistic director, Des MacAnuff, "enchanting."
The naysayer was Douglas Watt of the Daily News: "Amiable, tuneful, rambling and almost totally uninvolving," he frowned.
Los Angeles playwright Edward Sakamoto got a sheaf of encouraging reviews for his "Manoa Valley," recently produced in New York by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.
Set in Hawaii on the day it became a state, Sakamoto's play concerns a family resolving its own problems of independence versus unity. "There is not much new in this slight play," Mel Gussow wrote in the New York Times, "but our sympathies are evoked by the playing of familiar strains in unfamiliar surroundings--the melting pot of Hawaii."
Eileen Blumenthal of the Village Voice, who has lived in Hawaii, was warmed by the lilt of Sakamoto's island dialogue, but felt that the interactions of the characters smacked of sitcom.
Sy Syna of the New York City Tribune also appreciated the play's dialogue "with its mixture of Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese and whatever. It lends a delightful freshness and warmth to Sakamoto's perception that the process of Americanization is the same for all groups, no matter what their origin."
Edith Oliver in the New Yorker: "The parts are somewhat dim, but the actors perform them well."
Can a critic be sued for libel? A New York federal judge last year said yes in the famous Mr. Chow case in which a chef came into court and proved to the jury beyond a shadow of a doubt that despite the verdict of a restaurant critic, his pancakes were not thick and his green peppers did not stick to the plate.
A U.S. Court of Appeals judge recently overturned this ruling, on the grounds that reviewers deal in opinions and are entitled to a certain amount of poetic license. A close call for the critical establishment.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Ian Reddington, an actor in England's barnstorming Shared Experience company, in the London Sunday Times--"Touring is like being put in a confined space with a lot of people who used to be your friends."