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January 16, 2013

Grosse Pointe Theatre dives into ‘Big River’

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

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Grosse Pointe Theatre dives into ‘Big River’
Grant Hale, of Washington Township, plays Huck, and Leon Anderson Jr., of Fraser, plays Jim, in Grosse Pointe Theatre’s production of the musical “Big River.”

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — For many students, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is required reading.

But those same students — along with their parents — likely haven’t seen the story’s musical adaptation, “Big River.” The show — which features country and bluegrass songs by country-music legend Roger Miller — debuted on Broadway in 1985, but despite revivals in 2003 and 2008, it isn’t often staged. Penned only a few years before Miller’s death in 1992, “Big River” won a Tony Award for Best Score in 1985.

The Grosse Pointe Theatre’s production of this tale gives local audiences a rare opportunity to see it brought to life on the stage. The show, about young Huck Finn’s experiences in the pre-Civil War South as he helps his pal Jim, a slave, escape to freedom and buy his family out of slavery, is being staged Jan. 20 to Feb. 2 at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

Grant Hale, of Washington Township, plays Huck, opposite Leon Anderson Jr., of Fraser, as Jim. Dennis Martell, of Livonia, and Kevin Fitzhenry, of Warren — who last season co-starred in GPT’s “Moonlight and Magnolias” — are playing a couple of outrageous characters again, this time appearing, respectively, as the conniving King and Duke. Eddie Tujaka, of Grosse Pointe Farms, plays Huck’s abusive, alcoholic father, and Jeremy Harr, of Grosse Pointe Shores, is Huck’s buddy, Tom Sawyer.

Martell enjoys playing his con-artist character.

“I have a lot of freedom to be wild,” he said. Harr is also enjoying playing someone he said is “so over-the-top.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Harr, who’s once again appearing in a GPT show with mom Laura Bartell — as Miss Watson and Aunt Sally — and his father, music and voice director Stan Harr. “Tom’s such an eccentric, enthusiastic character.”

Other cast members include Jarod Clark, of Royal Oak; Chantelle Adkins, of Romeo; Bridget Healey, of Roseville; Jessica Tujaka, of Grosse Pointe Farms; William Giovan, of Grosse Pointe Farms; Madison Collier, of Grosse Pointe Park; daughter-mother duo Kate and Bev Dickinson, of Pleasant Ridge; Nicolas Doyle, of Grosse Pointe Woods; Christopher Curtis, of Eastpointe; father-daughter duo Steven and Stevie-Joi Clark, of St. Clair Shores; and Grosse Pointe City residents Ana Christinidis, Kate Connolly, Jacqueline DiSante, Emmajean Evans and Robert Mullinger.

Director Kathleen Lietz of Royal Oak was drawn to this show because of the music, including some pieces she said that “are just wonderful.” For this production, they’ve pared down the band to a more fitting bluegrass outfit, with a banjo, fiddle and harmonica, she said.

But in spite of a spirited soundtrack and “a lot of humor in the play,” the director acknowledged that “Big River” isn’t without its detractors.

Because of its use of the “n” word, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has long been a controversial book. “Big River” doesn’t shy away from the racially derogatory term that has caused some parents and students to demand that the book be removed from school curriculum.

“I don’t think we, as a society, like to look back at the ugliness of the time period,” Lietz said. “(The play) does deal with some serious issues about slavery, which was an ugly part of America’s past.”

Some have criticized the portrayal of Jim as offensive and stereotypical, as well, but Lietz believes Jim was an intelligent man of integrity, and that’s how Anderson is playing him.

Anderson, best known locally for his work with the community theater OnOurOwn Productions, hasn’t done a GPT play in about a decade, but the veteran actor and vocalist is breathing new life into Jim, an honest man in a difficult situation who he said is “just looking to get his family back and will do whatever it takes to attain that.”

As to the language controversy, Anderson, a father of two young children, said parents might want to have a conversation with their kids before seeing the show. The use of that term was a sign of the historic period covered in the book, but youngsters need to know it isn’t appropriate today — despite its prevalence in many popular songs.

Martell said “Big River” has “some beautiful moments between Jim and Huck” — moments based on friendship, not prejudice.

“It shows the hardness and the toughness of the times, but it also shows the caring and love of people who weren’t the same race,” he said.

Ultimately, cast and crew members say the play, like the book, packs a powerful message of tolerance and acceptance. Lietz — who said she’s “never one to shy away from controversy” — called GPT “particularly brave” for opting to stage “Big River.”

“Follow your heart, trust your gut and stand up for what’s right — those are the things that really clicked with me, as a director,” Lietz said. “We always pick a group to vilify. Instead of learning our lessons, we continue to perpetuate that pattern of hatred. That’s why I think (this story is still) applicable today.”

She asks that audiences “come with an open mind.” In return, Lietz promises an “enjoyable show” with an important message.

“They should expect big laughs, wonderful singing and orchestration … and just an overall good time,” Jeremy Harr said.

The War Memorial is located at 32 Lake Shore. “Big River” opens at 2 p.m. Jan. 20. Additional performances are at 8 p.m. Jan. 24-26, 2 p.m. Jan. 27, and 8 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 1-2. Tickets are $24. For tickets or more information, call (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.