Theater
Preview
"Big River"

Produced by: TheatreWorks
Book by William Hauptman; music and lyrics by Roger Miller; based on the novel by Mark Twain
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Featuring: Alex Goley, James Monroe Iglehart, Jackson Davis, Gary S. Martinez, Scott Reardon, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Alison Ewing, Jesse Caldwell, Martin Rojas Dietrich, Matthew Thomas Provencal, Cyril Jamal Cooper, Katie Jane Martin, Brenna Wahl, Dawn L. Troupe, Tracy Camp, Christopher Prescott Carter, Layce Lynne Kieu and Farah Sanders.
Scenic design by: Joe Ragey
Costume design by: B Modern
When: Previews November 28-30; opens December 1; through December 30, 2012
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets: $23-$73. (Discounts available for students, educators, seniors.) Call 650-463-1960 or got to theatreworks.org.

See some of the designs for this production by Joe Ragey and B Modern.

Read a TheatreWorks Q&A with Alex Goley.

Read John Orr's review of this production of "Big River."
Mark Twain
Unknown
Mark Twain
Buy an unabridged, illustrated paperback copy of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.

Buy an unabridged, illustrated paperback copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.

Buy a hardback copy of "Letters from the Earth" by Mark Twain at Amazon.com.
Big River
Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Alex Goley, left, and James Monroe Iglehart star in "Big River," staged by TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, November 28 through December 30, 2012.
TheatreWorks returns to the well
of Huckleberry Finn's 'Big River'
Mark Twain's great novel, fleshed out with the
music of Roger Miller, is restaged 22 years later
November 27, 2012

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain is one of my favorite books. When I first read it, in my childhood, I loved all the humor and the adventure. And that goodness wins.

As an adult who has spent a lot of time studying literature, I have an even deeper appreciation of it.

"All modern American literature comes from it," said Earnest Hemingway of "Huckleberry Finn." It broke new ground in literature by speaking in the language of its time, using a narrator in the vernacular of the Mississippi River in the 1830s and 1840s; it spoke the truth about important issues, including racism. And, it said that freedom was more important than money. In a sense, it is the American ideal.

TheatreWorks is bringing a musical version of the story, "Big River," to the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto this week, with previews beginning Wednesday and opening night on Saturday.

It's the second time TheatreWorks has done the show, which was a success on Broadway, running for more than two years in the middle 1980s and winning a bunch of Tony awards. The book is by William Hauptman, the music and lyrics by Roger Miller.

TheatreWorks founder and artistic director Robert Kelley directed both TheatreWorks productions, in 1990 and again this year.

"I love it," he said in a recent phone interview. "I am a huge fan of 'Huckleberry Finn.' ... And, although this one is set in an era of slavery, its story has survived because it's so human. It goes right to the heart of the American experience," said Kelley.

"Twain has such a remarkable sense of humor - in some ways, the American sense of humor. Probably was that, all the way to Will Rogers. ...

Robert Kelley
Carla Befera / TheatreWorks
Robert Kelley is the founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks.

"Both American literature and theater are filled with coming-of-age stories, and this is really one of the greatest of all time. Part of the joy of the show is watching Huck grow from being a misfit to being a man, or the beginnings of a man. He has to become a different kind of man, one liberated from the restrictions of a Southern upbringing. He has to go against the grain of his culture. ...

"It goes to the essence of the American character - the book does that as well - it's one of those times when the transformation of book to stage works beautifully. And whoever thought of having Roger Miller do the music was a genius.

"It has great music, such infectious music. Even years after doing it the first time, I remember every single song. Tons of the songs stick in your head forever."

Kelley said he is working with "An outstanding cast," and that it is "a thrill to work with James (Monroe Iglehart) again. After his years in New York, he has grown amazingly stronger as an actor."

Iglehart was in the show "Memphis," which was partly developed and then premiered at TheatreWorks in the 2003/04 season. It landed on Broadway in 2009, staying for 1,166 performances and a big pile of Tony awards. Iglehart was part of the TheatreWorks and Broadway productions.

"The pairing is just fabulous," Kelley said, speaking of Iglehart as the escaped slave, Jim, and Alex Goley as Huck. "Amazing chemistry," Kelley said. "You can't help but see them as these iconic American characters. They draw you into this adventure, you're there with them the whole way."

Goley did "Big River" just this last summer, for Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre, "the state's only professional Shakespeare company ... where the Mississippi meets The Thames."

In Arkansas, Goley was Huck in "Big River," and Prince Edward in "Richard III," in repertory.

At TheatreWorks, he said, "I love working with Robert Kelley. His direction is smart, calculated. He really does take the show piece by piece in rehearsal, and you always have the sense he has the big picture going on in his mind.

"It is a great creative team. Everybody is an incredible artist. Kelley talks a lot about that with the cast, that everybody in the production is equally important."

The cast gets along well, Goley said. "There's so much heart, nobody competing for the spotlight."

Alex Goley
Joan Marcus / TheatreWorks
Alex Goley as Huckleberry Finn in "Big River," staged by TheatreWorks.

When he did the show in Arkansas, there was a bigger cast, but he's finding it very exciting to be able to watch actors shaping different characters as they double up on roles.

And, of course, doing the show in repertory in Arkansas meant he had to keep Huck and Prince Edward in mind all the time.

Now he can focus just on Huck.

"At first glance, it appears to be kind of a hokey show," said Goley, "but it has so much heart, and such a powerful story. With Mark Twain, we tend to think of Tom Sawyer. But that Huck Finn ended up with the musical is interesting.

"Tom is really the very juvenile character, whereas Huck Finn has to deal with real issues - real adventure, real danger. In the show, Tom Sawyer doesn't really grasp the weight of the situation. A lot of the comedy in the show comes from that."

Goley is also appreciating what he called "fantastic" accent coaching, and how detailed it's been. After all, the story moves slowly down the Mississippi River at a time when regionalisms would have been even more pronounced than they are now.

Plus, while the flavor of the accent must be there, it also must be enunciated very clearly, because of the famously muddy acoustics of the Lucie Stern (although, reportedly, some improvements have been made in that venerable facility).

Goley recited Huck's open lines to me: "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."

And he sure sounded like Huck to me.

Goley is originally from North Carolina, but stayed in New York after finishing his undergrad degree in liberal arts at NYU in 2011.

"I looked around a lot of schools," Goley said, on the same day I spoke with Kelley. "I visited New York when I was a junior in high school. No matter what program, I just felt like I wanted to be in New York City."

And it proved a good choice: "All the teachers had recent or active Broadway experience or were theater and film professionals."

This is his first visit to California, and he is enjoying both the Bay Area and his experience at TheatreWorks. He's been to San Francisco once, saw Fisherman's Wharf and biked to the Golden Gate Bridge. "I loved it. There's a lot sky here you don't get in New York City."

The day I spoke with Goley and Kelley, the cast had just had the first rehearsal with the band. "Thrilling," Kelley said. That night, cast and orchestra were to move from TheatreWorks' new rehearsal facility in Redwood City to the Lucie Stern Theatre, where the stage has been put in place.

TheatreWorks has been a very busy operation of late, with not only its usual full season of plays in various stages of production, but also undergoing a huge move from its old facilities in Menlo Park. Now the company is split between offices, rehearsal space and costume shop in Redwood City, and the scenes and properties shops across the Bay in Newark.

The office spaces are very nice, Kelley reports, much airier - "It was a little bit of a warren we were in" in Menlo Park, which is an understatement. It was more like a mad maze, between the front offices and the scene shop in that facility. "This is much more open, but on the other hand, more formal. We are gradually making it into a theater work space."

But the "big challenge" across the Bay, though, was not having the right power situation in place, which meant that "a lot of the show was built with hand tools, rather than full carpentry and metal shop. Most of the things we would normally build with steel, we're doing with wood."

But, he's happy with it. "It's going to be beautiful," he said.



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