By Mary Boyle
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is widely considered to be one of the greatest American novels ever written. Published in 1885, the story was modeled after Twain's own childhood in Missouri prior to the Civil War, where he saw his share of the horrors of slavery. The book was just one of the many ways Twain spoke out against the racism and injustice he continued to see in our Country. At the same time, it is an ode to the Mississippi River, which played such an important part in Twain's life. The book has been consistently banned since its publication, mainly due to Twain's way of writing how the people actually spoke; consequently, there are many schools who do not include the book in their curriculum. In the early 1980's, William Hauptman and Roger Miller wrote a musical based on the book, sticking to the heart of the story while removing some of the most controversial bits. The show opened on Broadway in 1985, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. Now, First Stage has brought Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Milwaukee audiences, and it's the perfect way for the whole family to experience this classic.
Directed by Marti Gobel, Big River is slightly scaled down from the full Broadway production, while still keeping the story intact. The show begins as the story does: Huck (double cast as Luke Brotherhood/Ben Kindler) has been made a ward of the Widow Douglas (Kat Wodtke) and, having no wish to be civilized, he runs off down the Mississippi River. Days later, hiding out on an island, Huck runs into Jim (DiMonte Henning), the Widow Douglas' slave, who overheard the Widow talking to a slave trader and ran away when he believed he was to be sold. Huck agrees to go with Jim down river to where the Mississippi meets the Ohio, so that Jim can make his way north to the free states but, along the way, they meet up with two bad men, the King (Matt Daniels) and the Duke (Chris Klopatek), who would like nothing more than to get their hands on the money they could make by selling Jim. Before they do, the swindlers meet a strange fellow (Elliott Brotherhood) and learn about a young lady, Mary Jane (Georgina Pink/ Mackenzie Ross), in a nearby town who was awaiting the arrival of her late uncle's brothers to help settle her uncle's estate. Recognizing a great opportunity, the two impersonate the brothers and set about getting as much money as they can. When it seems they may be caught, the King and Duke sell Jim to buy tickets for a river boat, but Huck decides to help Mary Jane and find Jim and free him, even if it is wicked to free a slave.
The music, played live on stage by several of the actors and directed by Paul Helm, who also plays piano for the show, is in the style of the time period and the highlight of the show. The songs range from foot-tapping, hand-clapping, triumphant romps to powerful, emotional ballads, with only the actors and ensemble to sing, and accompanied by two guitars, a violin and a piano. Andrew Crowe, who plays a number of characters in the show, is a phenomenal violinist, and plays a hauntingly beautiful intro to the show's first song, "Waitin' for the Light to Shine.' Milwaukee favorites, Matt Daniels and Kat Wodtke, both play guitar to round out the band, as well as lending their vocals. Milwaukee actor, DiMonte Henning, who lent his voice to the scarecrow in The Wiz at First Stage last season, delivers a powerful and moving performance as Jim, while Chris Klopatek, who is an excellent sidekick to Matt Daniels, returns to his hometown and First Stage this season to play Duke as well as Smee in the upcoming production of Tinker Bell.
I cannot think of a better way to introduce children to this powerful tale and the unlikely hero that is Huckleberry Finn than Big River. Mark Twain's humor in the face of injustice is exactly what the world needs, right now. Along those lines, First Stage is hosting a special event, which is free and open to the public, in partnership with Hours Against Hate, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The event is called Uncommon Friendships, and features special guest speakers, Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis. Kaleka lost his father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, in the August 5th, 2012 Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting, while Michaelis is a former white supremacist who helped to start a gang in the late 1980's that produced the August 5th shooter. Together, the two co-authored the book , The Gift Of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate, and work together through Kaleka's organization, Serve 2 Unite, which engages communities in peacemaking to address violence conflict, and radicalization. The event will be facilitated by Dominic Inouye, the founder and director of ZIP MKE, and a former teacher at Marquette University, Pius XI High School, and The Prairie School in Racine. The event takes place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street in Milwaukee, on Friday, March 29th from 5-7 p.m. Space is limited, and registration is required (click here for the link).
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn runs through April 14th at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Marcus Center Box Office at 929 N. Water Street, by phone at (414) 273-7206 or online at www.firststage.org.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’sEureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education and the arts for its Next Steps program for students on the autism spectrum (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Milwaukee Arts Partners and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).