‘Big River’ at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts

Photo courtesy Cynda Green
The cast of Thingamajig Theatre Company’s “Red River” performs “Free At Last” during rehearsal. The play is one of four playing in repertory at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts this summer.

By Cynda Green
Special to The PREVIEW

The (seven) Tony Awards-winning musical “Big River,” based on Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” opens this Saturday at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. One of those 1985 Tony Awards went to Roger Miller for best original score.

What better way to spend time after our Fourth of July celebration than to immerse one’s self in this historical musical about American slavery and freedom?

The time is pre-Civil War, circa 1840, and Huck Finn’s own words set the scene: “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was written by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth — mainly.

“There was some things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. And I’m going to tell the truth, as I see it, in the story I’m enacting tonight.

“It’s about me and my friend … a runaway slave named Jim, and a long journey we took together …”

That journey centers around their float trip aboard an abandoned raft down the Mississippi River, and all the adventures and misadventures — some hilarious and others frightening — along the way.

Huck Finn is a wild-child orphan (his pap doesn’t qualify for the title of parent) without a visible compass, but, as the story unfolds, his inner compass points towards character and heart, and the realization that slavery is unjust, inhumane and immoral. However, the path is not a straight line and that is what creates drama and dramatic comedy along the way.

The delightful and many times soulful music and lyrics for “Big River” were written by the uniquely genius country singer and songwriter Miller. Former Yale School of Drama professor Rocco Landesman convinced an intimidated Miller that he could and should write a Broadway score for Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In typical Miller fashion, he joked, “He (Landesman) made me an offer I couldn’t understand.”

Miller considered the “Big River” score his greatest musical accomplishment. He related to the character Huck Finn, and the language, because it was reminiscent of his own rural Oklahoma childhood.

After Miller came on board, Landesman commissioned fellow professor William Hauptman in 1983 to write the book for “Big River.” Hauptman strived to remain true to the language of Twain’s novel, and so included selective racist language, including the N-word.

However, Hauptman re-examined that language in 2010 after he saw an excellent revival of “Big River”: “I felt that Twain’s lesson has now been learned so thoroughly that even my selective use of the word seems excessive. It would not do to eliminate the (N-word) entirely — I have to be true to the world of Twain’s novel or we can’t have Huck’s conversion — so I’m suggesting that half the uses of the word be eliminated or altered.”

Hauptman’s suggested 2010 version of his original book is reflected in Thingamajig’s “Big River” production.

Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” included the N-word 219 times. It was first banned just one month after its publication as “not suitable for trash,” and has enjoyed a notorious and controversial place in American literature since then. Does it promote racism through the use of the N-word, or is it a tool to educate modern America? A 2011 revised edition of the novel replaced all occurrences of the N-word with “slave.” That choice has been the subject of even greater controversy.

The diverse cast that Thingamajig Theatre Company’s artistic director, Tim Moore, assembled for the 2017 summer season could be the most talented cast ever at PSCA.

“Big River” stars Stuart Rial as Huck Finn and Tyler Price as Jim.

“The Boys,” led by troublemaker Tom Sawyer (Luke Hefner) is a song one could coin as fantastical fun. In contrast, the vocals and understated but powerful choreography (Paul Thiemann) for the song “Free at Last,” sung by Jim and slaves, is deeply moving.

Miller’s score ran the gauntlet for “Big River,” and proved the veracity of a tribute made at his 1992 celebration of life — that God made him equal parts laughter and soul.

“Big River” director Anita Jo Lenhart is passionate about this production, and has emphasized the diverse, talented cast.

“Our artistic team has developed the ‘role’ of what we call the Spirit Ensemble (all the actors of color who play slaves in ‘Big River’) as an elemental force connecting heaven to the earth … we think of them as a guiding and protective spirit for Huck, like the water spirit of the Mississippi.

“Our production will use these amazing actors, dancers and singers far more than any other production of ‘Big River’ has ever been known to do, while still supporting the original intent of Mark Twain and the book and score for the musical.”

“Big River” is playing in repertory throughout the summer with three other musicals: “Aida,” “Hairspray” and “Sister Act.”

For tickets or more information about “Big River” and the rest of the summer season and events, visit www.pagosacenter.org, email info@pagosacenter.org or call 731-7469.

This story was posted on July 6, 2017.