It’s required reading for most high school students. It’s regarded by many as the great American novel. There have been numerous film versions of the story but only one musical version. “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” based on Mark Twain’s classic will be presented at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, November 13, 14 and 15, in the school’s theatre. Director Betsy Dutton calls the show a “rewarding challenge.”
With a unique musical score with a wide variety of songs for the show, country music songwriter Roger Miller perfectly matched the breadth of Twain’s writings. It is a monumental achievement and a lasting legacy for Miller, who proved himself to be a writer of much more than country western hits like “King of the Road.”
“What amazes me about ‘Big River’ is its scope, this grand, huge bigness, but at the same time the music is quite intimate,” director Dutton says. “There is opportunity for big dramatic musical moments but there’s a lot of music that’s really intimate – with only a harmonica or fiddle for accompaniment.”
At the center of the show, as in Twain’s novel is the relationship between adolescent Huck and the runaway slave Jim. Twain set Huck’s story some 20 years before the Civil War when slavery was the accepted norm for most of the south, including his Missouri. “At a minimum you need two strong African-American singers to produce this show,” explains Dutton.
With senior Solomon Dold in the focal role of Jim, Dutton had to look elsewhere for another performer for the role of Alice the slave who sings two of the show’s spirituals. Sterling College Theatre student Raven Taylor from Wichita will be featured in that role. “Raven just joined us recently,” Dutton explains, “and she’s had an impact on the others in the show.” Taylor is familiar to Sterling audiences from last fall’s Sterling College musical “South Pacific” where she played the role of Bloody Mary.
Another challenging aspect of the music of “Big River” is the musicians themselves. There aren’t many Broadway shows which require a fiddle as well as a harmonica. Both will be part of the on-stage musical combo for the show, which will feature Sterling High School students Erik Vogt, Henry Wiener and Edward Wiener on guitar, bass, and drums respectively, Rice County resident Genifer Wessler playing the fiddle and Sterling College Theatre student Carlton Ryker on harmonica. Sterling High choral director Clark Comley is musical director for the show while elementary music teacher Cindy Anthony is pianist.
The show’s leading character, Huck Finn, steps outside the action of the show frequently to comment directly to the audience. “This whole show is about relationships with the people Huck is enacting the story,” director Betsy Dutton explains. “So the audience becomes another character he can connect with. It’s like speaking to friends in the audience.”
Playing Huck is senior Brian Walker, who says, “I personally have never had as large an onstage role, so suddenly having role with 300+ lines and 12 songs has been a bit of a leap for me. But I’m excited to meet the challenge.”
Twain’s influence will be seen not just through the characters and plot of the familiar story of Huck and Jim but also in the setting. Because the novel is episodic and takes place in many locations on and along the Mississippi River, the set for the musical has to be suggestive. “We literally take pages out of Twain’s book for the set,” explains Dutton. The set replicates pages from the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” complete with illustrations based on the originals by artist Edward Kemble.
Senior Solomon Dold is playing Jim. He says, “I’d say that the most challenging part for me has been the characterization of Jim. This role has been the most difficult one I have ever played and has been so different than anything else I’ve done. Usually I rely on comedic roles that need a character voice but this is a serious role that requires serious vocal chops.”
“Ultimately, I think ‘Big River’ shows that we’re all human, we all have heartbeats and working together is an important message to be reminded of,” Dold says. “It’s a matter of finding out what’s right and what’s wrong for each individual.”
“I don’t think we, as a society, like to look back at the ugliness of the time period,” Dutton adds. “Yet, this show does deal with some serious issues about slavery, which was an ugly part of America’s past.”
Dutton explains that “Big River” has “some beautiful moments between Jim and Huck” — moments based on friendship, not prejudice. “It shows the difficulties of the times, but it also shows the caring and love of people who aren’t of the same race,” she says.
Tickets for the Sterling High School Theatre production of “Big River” are $6.00 for adults and $4.00 for students and will be available at the door before each performance.