“Friendship, adventure, freedom, progress,” said Joshua Blanchard, Lake Dillon Theatre Company executive director, as he described the substance of the musical “Big River,” the theater’s newest offering.
“Big River” is William Hauptman and Roger Miller’s 1984 adaption of Mark Twain’s classic book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” first published in 1884.
“The story of Huck Finn is part of the fabric of American history and culture,” said Blanchard, who directs the production. “It’s the tale of slavery and hardship in the South during the mid-19th century. But under the veneer of human exploitation and suffering emerges a beautiful and inspiring tale of friendship and understanding. It’s a wonderful story for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.”
“Big River” tells the story of Huckleberry Finn, a fatherless boy taken in by two widows, and his unlikely friendship with their slave Jim. Propelled by the discovery of lost gold, Huck and Jim find themselves on a raft heading south along the Mississippi River. Along the way, Huck and Jim meet an assortment of characters who help or hinder their journey toward adventure and freedom.
Returning Lake Dillon Theatre Company member Frank Sansone (“Scapin,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) joins a diverse ensemble of performers including Jimmy Bain as Huck, DeMone as Jim, William Bellamy, Justina Ercole, Diane Huber, Oyoyo Joi, Evan Maltby, Kristen Piancentile and Nina Waters.
A look into the past
While “Big River” may dredge up memories of a history filled with inequality, slavery and sexism, at its heart it is a tale of friendship and progress.
“There are many reasons why Mark Twain is known as America’s first humorist,” Blanchard said. “Twain’s writing is ironic and satirical, and his keen observations of everyday American life are at the core of ‘Big River.’ The characters can be stereotypical in a universal sense, but then they do or say something surprising, which makes us abruptly question our initial perspectives.”
“Our production of ‘Big River’ offers a chamber-style convention as a means of storytelling,” said Tim Pare, Lake Dillon Theatre Company educational director and choreographer of the show. “A chamber production combines the narrative text of an established literary work with the performative nature of live theater, resulting in a storytelling experience shared between the audience and the ensemble.
“‘Big River’ is not usually staged in a chamber style, but we felt the musical lent itself to this tradition because it is such a magical blend of direct address narration, traditional stage dialogue and music numbers that purposefully engage the audience.”
A diverse ensemble of 10 performers is responsible for Twain’s tale, encapsulating more than 50 characters ranging broadly in gender, class, ethnicity and age.
Blanchard said the unique production faithfully reflects the initial impact of Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” when it was first published 130 years ago.
“Just as Twain’s story challenged his audience’s understanding of cultural issues like ethnicity, class and slavery, as well as challenged public notions of literature and social commentary, our ‘Big River’ affords audiences the opportunity to think about diversity within today’s social landscape and within the popular perspectives of theater as a commercial art form,” Blanchard said.
An American journey
“Big River” is the fourth production of the Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s 20th anniversary season, featuring nine productions that celebrate journeys of self-discovery and growth amidst a changing American landscape.
“(‘Big River’) is the quintessential American story,” said Chris Alleman, Lake Dillon Theatre Company producing artistic director. “We selected this show specifically for this season because of its roots in American history, American literature and the American musical cannon. Not only does ‘Big River’ allow us to reflect on our nation’s past, but it also brings into our season Mark Twain, a classic American writer. And ‘Big River’ is a hugely popular musical among regional theaters. People love the story, the characters and the award-winning score.
“Audiences will leave moved by the production. They’ll be thinking about the story, laughing at the characters or humming the songs — or quite possibly all three.”
“Big River” opened Wednesday, June 25. Performances are on select Tuesdays through Sundays until Friday, Aug. 8. “Big River” runs in repertory with “Sweet Charity,” opening Friday, July 11. For more information, visit www.lakedillontheatre.org.