The newest chapter in Playhouse in the Park’s 2012 season premieres tonight.
“Big River,” a musical by William Hauptman and Roger Miller, will show on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.starting today through Sept. 16 at Playhouse in the Park.
“(Big River) takes place in the late 1800s, and it is about (Huck Finn’s) adventure with a runaway slave named Jim. Huck runs away to get away from his father, and Jim runs away to gain his freedom and they kind of accidentally meet up. They get on a raft to head down the river, so it is about the adventures of that and all the issues of that time,” Lisa Cope, director, said.
The theater found the musical was not as well-known as they may have thought.
“They may not recognize the name,” Cope said. “If you say ‘Big River’ we’ve found that to be true, but if you say “Huck Finn” of course everybody knows that. So, the committee agreed that it’s a good fit. I think everybody is going to like it.”
The small community theater plans approximately six main stage shows each season, and opens the auditions for anyone in the community.
“We advertised the auditions, and that’s the beauty of community theater — anybody who wants to can audition,” Cope said. “I always say that there’s a spot for everybody in community theater. It may not be on the stage for this particular show, but there are so many things that have to be done, so certainly everybody can find something they’re interested in.”
There were several Murray State students who took advantage of the open auditions. Michael Martin, senior from Florissant, Mo., received the lead role of Jim, an escaped slave.
“I music directed a show this past spring at Playhouse, and I noticed that also in their season they were doing ‘Big River’ and it was one of my dream roles to play Jim,” Martin said. “It’s a great role for an African-American actor, and it’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I was lucky enough to get cast as Jim, and I’ve been working on it ever since.”
The role of Jim is different from other roles Martin has previously had.
“This show is very different because this is the first role I’ve played in my life, not even just in Murray, that is race specific,” Martin said. “Which is really cool, and also kind of tough because it’s race specific to a different time that I’m not from, obviously.”
Martin said he has enjoyed the process of learning to portray the race-specific role in a historically accurate way.
“I don’t act like a slave in my everyday life, so
to put myself in that role and get that mentality
was a little tough,” Martin said. “I had to do a little research, but it’s been great. It’s an empowering role, and it makes you feel great to go back there and feel what your ancestors felt. It’s just been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the times.”
For about six weeks after auditions for “Big River” the cast rehearsed four times weekly.
“The biggest challenge for me has been the dialect — having to emulate a slave,” Martin said. “You know the language that he uses — his tone —is a little bit darker, and his consonants aren’t as precise. It’s all been a work in progress, I haven’t gotten completely comfortable with it until about (two weeks before the show) I’ve been working hard every day seeing what works and what doesn’t work.”
Although the characteristics of Martin’s role were a priority and challenge to him, Cope had much more to deal with throughout the musical’s process.
“Because it’s a musical we learned all the music first, so we started that right away and they worked on that for a couple weeks,” Cope said. “So, two weeks of music rehearsal and then we started blocking and piecing it all together. Of course, that whole time that’s going on, from day one, your costumers are working, your set designers are working, so all of that stuff is going on behind the scenes exactly at that time you’re trying to put the show together.”
“Big River” rehearsals followed the typical process of piecing together a musical, however, the size of the show is atypical for Playhouse in the Park.
“It’s a big cast — there are 42, which is huge for us,” Cope said.
Not only is the cast bigger than usual, but the age range is as diverse as Murray State on Family Weekend.
“We have folks from age seven through senior adults,” Cope said. “So, pick an age and it’s represented! We have young kids, we have young teenagers — preteens, we have a big group of teenagers, we have several adults, and like I said we have seniors.”
With the 42 cast members, numerous production members and a live band, the seats are expected to be filled with family members and friends, Cope said.
“If you haven’t been then I definitely think you ought to come check us out, and if you have been then you know the quality of what you’re going to get,” Cope said.
Tickets for “Big River” can be purchased online at playhouseinthepark.net, at the door, or by calling the box office at 270-759-1752. Tickets cost $8 for children (12 and under), $9 for students, $10 for seniors and $11 for adults. For 10 or more, groups also get a $2 discount on tickets.
Story by Maddie Mucci, contributing writer.