Preview by Greg Bossler of Big River: CCM Musical Theatre
Big River, the musical the adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, opens the Studio Series at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music on October 8. The original Broadway production won seven Tony Awards in 1985, including best musical and best score, which features the songs of Roger Miller, the country singer-songwriter perhaps best known for his Grammy-winning chart-topper “King of the Road.”
The story unfolds as the irrepressible Huck Finn helps his friend Jim escape to freedom down the mighty Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio River. Their hilarious, hair-raising, and heartwarming adventures include iconic characters from the novel, including Widow Douglas and her stern sister Miss Watson, the unscrupulous King and Duke, the rowdy Tom Sawyer, Huck’s sinister father Pap Finn, and the trusting Mary Jane Wilkes.
“The show comes from a style not often heard in standard musical theater. It’s authentic country and bluegrass music—not a pastiche,” said Steve Goers, musical director of CCM’s production. “We do have students from the Bluegrass State, but not all of them have bluegrass music in them,” he continued. “We get top-tier musical theater kids that are steeped in that tradition.” So, to find those singers most suited to the style of the show, the students who auditioned were asked to sing a rhythmic excerpt from the score.
“This score is all about rhythmic timing,” Goers explained. “In Broadway style, the soloist has a broad range to interpret, to stretch a phrase to fit the dramatic moment, but in country and bluegrass style, you need to stay true to the rhythm, to stay within the beat.” To familiarize the cast with the proper style, and to set a common vocabulary, Goers introduced them to the folk soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and to bluegrass virtuosos like Alison Krauss and Béla Fleck. “The cast has really embraced the style,” he beamed. “They’re making the music feel natural and relaxed, without falling off the tempo.”
The actors are supported by a traditional instrumental combo, including a fiddler, a guitarist who doubles on mandolin and banjo, an a upright bass player, and Goers on piano and guitar. To accommodate the change from a full orchestra to a small ensemble, Goers made “new arrangements of the Broadway score in line with the bluegrass tradition, staying close to the original intent but allowing the instrumentalists to improvise a bit, playing off chord changes as in authentic bluegrass.”
One highlight to listen for in the show is “Muddy Water,” one of Goers’ favorite moments. A posse is chasing Jim, and with only moments to spare, he and Huck find a raft and set it afloat on the river. It’s an exhilarating beginning to their journey, both dramatically and musically—the accelerating rhythmic underscoring of the chase giving way to the soaring harmonies of the duo as they celebrate their start on the way to freedom.
Big River runs Oct. 8-10 at the Cohen Family Studio Theater in the CCM Village, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free, but reservations are required. CCM will begin taking orders at noon on Monday, Oct. 5, either in person at the box office or by phone at 513-556-4183. There is a limit of two tickets per order.