'Big River' delivers equality theme based on Twain


July 30, 1993|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Contributing Writer

The last of Theatre on the Hill's main summer productions, "Big River" is a William Hauptman adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The musical, which opens tonight, includes 14 original songs by the late country music figure Roger Miller.

Besides the 18 human actors, many playing double and even triple parts, the play introduces Mistersippi, a young black and white Hampshire pig, in his stage debut.

"The pig is actually the star of the show," producer Ira Domser said jokingly. "He comes in during Act I -- he's like Peter Pan -- we get the flying out of the way early."

Besides being a thoroughly enjoyable musical with sometimes rousing, sometimes poignant songs, "Big River" delivers a message of equality with a reminder of past mistakes.

"It has a very strong anti-racial theme by looking at the way people were treated back in the 1840s," Mr. Domser said. "We can see in the play how evil and wrong it was."

In Act I, Huck and his friend Jim decide to run away together.

Jim explains that he ran away because Miss Watson was going to sell him for $800 and he was afraid if that happened, he'd never see his wife and children again.

"Huck's problem is that he likes Jim as a friend, but Huck is a moral person and he has a dilemma because the way of society says he should turn Jim in to the authorities," Mr. Domser said.

But when the test comes, Huck decides he'll just have to be "wicked" and protect Jim from the slave catchers.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has seen its share of controversy over the years for its language and theme.

But the man who plays Jim in "Big River" has his own ideas about the story and its author.

"I think Mark Twain was a genius," Roland Burks said. "Although he really left it up to the readers to decide what to think, the message I get is that we are really all alike. And, if we can get past the differences between us, we'll see that we really are alike."

Even today -- 150 years after "Huck Finn" and 30 years after the civil rights movement began -- seeing the likenesses rather than the differences is still missing in the world, Mr. Burks said.

"It's easier to love one another than to hate one another," he said. "So, take the simple way out and love one another. And that's the message at the end of the play."

Mr. Burks, 29, worked in theater as a teen-ager, but took up opera as a career. Although this is his debut with Theatre on the Hill, he recently played Jim in "Big River" for a dinner theater in Baltimore.

His rich, powerful baritone adds tremendously to the production, especially in such pieces as "Muddy Waters," a duet with Huck, played by Gary Dieter, and his solo "Free at Last."

Other chief actors in the play include Jean Burgess as the Widow Douglas, Brian Jacobs as Tom Sawyer and Coleen Foley as Miss Watson. Bill Toscano gives an entertaining performance as Papp Finn.

"The play is very true to Twain. It puts in nearly every episode, but it moves very quickly because it's only two hours and has lots of music," Mr. Domser said, adding that a live orchestra provides the music.

"Big River" will be performed at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow and Aug. 6, 7, 13 and 14 on the main stage of Alumni Hall on the Western Maryland College campus in Westminster.

Tickets are $14 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens. Information: 857-2599 or 857-2448.

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