There’s a joke in the theater community that it’s hard to communicate with playwrights, when many are “dead for 300 years.”
So, it’s been particularly meaningful for Adventure Theatre MTC, in presenting “Huckleberry Finn’s Big River,” to be able to work with a playwright who’s very much alive.
He is William Hauptman, who revised the script he had written for the Tony Award-winning musical into an hour-long version more accessible to young people.
“The original Broadway show ran about two hours and 40 minutes,” noted Michael Baron, who is staging “Big River.” As the artistic director of the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, Baron considers himself a “huge fan” of Mark Twain’s storytelling abilities and great characters. Twain authored “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” on which “Big River” is based.
But he acknowledged what many see as the “polarizing nature” of the novel, although Twain in life had made his anti-slavery views known.
“In this version, the story is not different, but we make the point of view more equal,” he said, “We add African American and female characters, we made Huck and Jim the same age, both teenagers, so the show is even more about friendship. The role of Jim is also expanded.”
The Adventure Theatre version also removed language now considered offensive.
“It’s a gentle, humorous show” that nonetheless opens up discussion of serious topics, like, “how to treat each other with kindness,” Baron said.
Lending input and support were what the theater calls 100 “consensus organizers” – individuals and organizations serving the black community. noted Michael Bobbitt, Adventure Theatre’s artistic director.
Zach Rakotomaniraka and Nathan Butts share the role of Jim. Jonah Schwartz and Max Gerecht alternate as Huck.
For Butts, 17, “Huckleberry Finn’s Big River” is a “remarkable way to grasp the real concept of race and how one can change the way we think. We also want to engage the next generation about racism and not let anyone down.”
Having read “Huckleberry Finn” in ninth grade, Butts recalled the humor and storyline but also that there was “lots of controversy,” especially in the way Jim was portrayed. But the book and the show derived from it can also be used to show “how anyone can work together.”
Rakotomaniraka, 14, was thrilled when someone who had directed him in a production of “Rent” let him know that Adventure Theatre was looking for an African-American boy for “Big River.”
“It’s my most challenging role ever,” he said of Jim. “I had never experienced what he went through, so I did research into why he was running away, what slavery was like, so I could understand him.”
As part of that research, Rakotomaniraka watched the film “12 Years a Slave,” a powerful but harrowing true story of the torment one enslaved person suffered.
The entire cast visited the Sandy Spring Slavery Museum in Silver Spring, which brought home slavery’s agony by demonstrating the heavy chains slaves were sometimes forced to wear.
The museum also demonstrated how much work enslaved people were expected to do in a day.
On a brighter note, the Roger Miller songs, with their “amazing range of very low and very high,” won Rakotomanikara, a high baritone, over. “They’re all ballads, very soft and country,” he said.
“I love classic musicals,” Baron said. “But we don’t want to celebrate what’s not appropriate, and we should reflect the world today.”
Roger Miller wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway show. William Yanesh made new arrangements and orchestrations. Monique Midgette assistant directed, and Tiffany Holmes is the music director.
“Huckleberry Finn’s Big River” is probably most appropriate for youngsters in 6th grade and up.
The musical runs Feb. 8 through March 10 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo.