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An Americana Adventure: Celebrating Black History Month with Twain’s classic, Huck Finn

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Sail the Mississippi with Huck Finn and the gang in the Tony Award-winning 1985 musical, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” showing at Thalian Hall over the next few weekends.

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(l. to r.) Khawon J. Porter as Jim and Paul Teal as Huck star in Thalian Association’s ‘Big River.’ Courtesy photo

(l. to r.) Khawon J. Porter as Jim and Paul Teal as Huck star in Thalian Association’s ‘Big River.’ Courtesy photo

A mastermind band of players will come together to put on the Tony award-winning show “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for the next few weeks at Thalian Hall. Combining the famed prolificy of Mark Twain’s story, with book by William Hauptman, and bluegrass and country score from Grammy winner Roger Miller, “Big River” will crest with a slice of Americana storytelling unlike any other.

To pull off a show of this caliber, wherein music plays a vital role to its success, conductor Michael Lauricella, who will play piano, has culled together a few Wilmington greats to make up the band River Rats. They will play onstage throughout the performance and inlude: Adrian Varnam (fiddle); Matt Hess (woodwind); Walter Kryabill (trombone); Alex Hall (guitar/banjo); Harry McLamb (trumpet); Randy McQuay (harmonica); James Snow (drums); Justin Hoke (guitar); and Jonathan Barber (brass). Lauricella is taking no creative liberties with the score, but remaining true to Miller’s original compositions—which won the Tony in 1985.

“I am highlighting the instruments, like the fiddle, harmonica and banjo, that many associate with the pre-Civil War era music,” Lauricella notes.

Combined with the amazing talents of local thespians Paul Teal as Huck and Khawon Porter as Jim, Lauricella says the cast beautfiully performs Miller’s music and gives the show the Southern hometown feel it needs. “‘Free at Last’ and ‘Muddy Water’ are my favorite [songs], he adds. “Paul and Khawon are amazing storytellers, under the thoughtful direction of Laurene Perry. They bring these characters, their relationships, their joys and sorrows to life in these two numbers.”

Perry, who has done a slew of shows locally from “Little Women” to “The Miracle Worker,” dictates her directing hand this time around by the genius of Twain. She has allowed his great adventure to be the driving force behind the show.

“Mr. Twain’s approach to the story is so casual,” Perry says. “I let the writing lead the way . . . He made it easy. This cast has been able to interpret his intent with just the slightest guidance from me. The real challenge with this show is in the staging.”

With losing two weeks from the holidays, the rehearsal time has been cut down. Yet, Perry enlisted the help of Debra Gillingham to lead the choreography. Thus, the audience can see through artistic movement the words jump from the pages.

“Her clear and honest approach moves the story along and introduces detail to the characters,” Perry notes. “Debra’s real talent, however, is that she understands that the best movement is movement that can be mastered by the cast. She has achieved that here.”

It’s the largest cast Perry’s worked with in quite some time. Thirty total make up the ensemble and leading roles, which also includes Dru Loman as Tom Sawyer, Abby Bowman as Mary Jane Wilkes, and Skip Maloney as Pap Finn. The tight staging has been a challenging one; yet, the professionalism brought by the talent has made it easier.

“The cast’s interpretation of historic placement and their personal chemistry are what bring Huck and Jim to life,” Perry says. “Not to be overlooked are Stuart Pike and Charlie Robertson in supporting roles as the Duke and the King, bringing a perfect comedic balance to the abolishonist message. This ensemble acts as the perfect platter to serve up this classic story.”

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” remains a classic piece of American literature, which has inspired generations of readers and writers since its 1884 release. Thalian Association’s artistic director, Tom Briggs, chose “Big River” as their annual Black History Month commemorative show. “It’s a story that addresses the African-American journey,” Briggs says—“that we have the power to transcend our circumstances. Here’s a kid who somehow knows that slavery is wrong, and he’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t have an education, he doesn’t really have a family, but he has a lot of heart and that’s going to serve him very well. When you lead with kindness, extraordinary things are possible.”

Briggs remains excited by Perry’s dedication to the show. She’s brought on Troy Rudeseal to help dress the ultimate American backdrop, as well as enlisted the help for Debbue Sheu’s costuming and Dallas LaFon’s lighting. It makes up her personal dream team.
“It’s Americana but with a realism that allows the audience to appreciate the horrors of slavery and the idealic setting of a young boy’s country life,” Perry states,

Briggs agrees. “It’s a beautiful show; It has suspense, romance, hilarity and [it’s uplift[ing]. It’s just beautifully crafted and delivers exactly what it promises: adventure.”

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Thurs. – Sun. through Feb. 9th, 8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15 – $30
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
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