Theatre of Gadsden brings “Big River” to the Coosa

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Photo: Big River lead actors Dave Ritschard and John Christoper Adams settle into character as Huck Finn and Jim. (Courtesy of J. Price Photography)

Often the best performances are those that entertain an audience while teaching a moral or lesson at the same time.

This weekend, Theatre of Gadsden will stage one such experience at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Alabama City.

Big River is the show, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story.

Big River showtimes are at 7 p.m. July 15-16 and 22-23 and at 2 p.m. July 23-24 at the historic Ritz Theatre located at 310 Wall Street in Alabama City. There will be no show on Sunday, July 17, but there are two shows on Saturday, July 23. Admission is $20 for adults, $18 for students/seniors/military and $15 each for groups of 10 or more. All seating is reserved seating. For tickets, visit www.theatreofgadsden.org or call 256-547-SHOW (7469).

The Tony Award-winning musical from the 1980s, with book by William Hauptman, features plenty of rollicking country and bluegrass-style music by Roger Miller as it follows the story of Huck Finn as presented in Twain’s novel.

Audiences will find plenty of similarities in the show when compared to the novel, but there are differences, as well, and some illustrations that help bring the novel to life onstage.

“I was a big Mark Twain fan growing up, and I read both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn,” said Dave Ritschard, who plays Huck. “I think the story is enhanced by the musical. The book is very Huck-centric, and so is the musical, but the musical brings all the other characters to life in a much more tangible way.”

During the winding tale on the Mississippi River, the audience gets to meet Huck’s friends, including Tom Sawyer and Jim.

In learning about Jim, the theme of slavery is illustrated, which may be difficult for audiences to see and hear. However, there are past and present lessons to be learned.

“Slavery, prejudice and injustice are prevalent in this story,” said director Mike Beecham. “I think it’s very important that people realize and recognize our history of race relations and how far we still need to go.”

Ritschard agreed.

“Those who forget history are bound to repeat it,” he said. “As uncomfortable as it is, slavery is a large part of our nation’s past. We cannot forget the atrocities that happened. One of my biggest goals for a number of parts in the show is to make people uncomfortable with the hard truths presented.”

Through those hard truths, the characters develop and grow throughout the musical. The main characters’ growth has shaped the actors themselves in their preparation for the roles, and themes from an 1884 novel have a lot in common with struggles still faced today.

Roger Miller’s varied music plays a large part in bringing those themes home. While some songs are happy, fun and incredibly catchy, other songs are filled with deeper meaning.

“My favorite song is probably ‘Worlds Apart,’” said John Christopher Adams, who plays Jim. “It shows how we all can experience the world in entirely different ways. It’s so poignant now because there is so much going on and so much division. I think we have lost the ability to see that our experience may not be someone else’s.”

“My other favorite would have to be ‘Crossing Over,’” Adams said. “The lyrics show a profound hope in going home to be with Christ, as well as showing that death was a far cry better than the lives slaves were living. The faith that sustained slaves had to be great.”

Both Ritschard and Adams hope audiences leave entertained yet aware and mindful of the story they see onstage.

“I want the audiences to walk away thankful for how far we have come as a country from where we were, but also realize there is much work to be done,” Ritschard said. “People do not derive their worth from how much they have or what color their skin is, but from the fact that they are created in the image of God.

“Humans are inherently valuable, and recognizing the humanity and infinite worth of those who are different from us or who think differently from us is the only way forward as a nation,” he said.

Adams agreed.

“One step beyond our prejudices and biases, there is humanity,” Adams said. “It’s the great equalizer, if only we would see it in one another.”

Submitted by Haley Rodgers

 

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