FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The Coen Brothers meet Mark Twain in Studio Tenn’s version of Roger Miller’s Tony Award-winning musical Big River. The show docks at Franklin Theatre from Feb. 21 to March 3.
This production provides Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” set to music and lyrics by the legendary Miller – including such notable songs as “Muddy Water,” “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” and “River in the Rain” – with an aesthetic influence inspired by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen’s contemporary film classic.
Studio Tenn Artistic Director Matt Logan says the company’s production aims to “elevate the music of the South by paying homage to gospel, bluegrass, and country.” The troupe has enlisted musician-composer-producer Don Chaffer of the Nashville-based husband-wife duo “Waterdeep” to weave into the score a more Twain-like timbre, combining the country, bluegrass and gospel styles from his era.
“In Mark Twain’s day, these types of music existed in entirely different worlds from one another–different lives, cultures, and even races,” Logan explains. “However, when you fast-forward to the 1940s and ‘50s, these genres begin to mix and make music magic. Setting Twain’s tale on the eve of this change gives us all the influence of the past with all the excitement of its future.”
Studio Tenn will utilize a “theatre troupe” format to present Twain’s tale from the perspective of a Depression-era “jug band.” That evokes the look and feel of the Coens’ 2000 film, which is a loose retelling of Homer’s “The Odyssey” which transplants the ancient epic to the Deep South in the 1930s.
Leading a cast that will double as the band is 13-year-old singer-songwriter Jackson Nance making his theatrical debut as Huckleberry Finn. Casting a young newcomer as the star is a bold move, but it’s also an honest way to achieve the youthful exuberance and sense of daring inherent to the story, according to Logan.
“Big River is a coming-of-age tale, one that raises some challenging social and cultural themes,” he notes. “It’s about an adventuresome young boy beginning to discern the world for himself, and becoming aware that societal standards don’t always reflect his own sense of what is ultimately right or true. This realization is confusing at times, but it’s also liberating and exhilarating for Huck. We wanted to portray his character as genuinely as possible, and Jackson [Nance] has the spunk and talent we were looking for.”
Nance isn’t the first youngster to star in a Studio Tenn production. Ten-year-old Madeleine Hall played Helen Keller in 2012’s The Miracle Worker, giving a remarkable performance was widely hailed by audiences and critics.
“We don’t compromise our standards of quality in order to include kids in our productions,” states Studio Tenn’s Managing Director Jake Speck. “But, we do embrace the opportunities, when they arise, to showcase local youth who rise to the level of professional, Broadway-caliber theatre.”
Big River also features John-Mark McGaha (seen in Studio Tenn’s presentation of Smokey Joe’s Cafe) as the runaway slave Jim, Jack Alcott as Tom Sawyer (2012’s A Christmas Carol and The Sound of Music), and Mary Marguerite Hall as Mary Jane Wilkes (A Christmas Carol in 2011 and The Sound of Music in 2012).
The production boasts one of Studio Tenn’s most versatile and dynamic casts to date, according to Speck. “Almost everyone is acting, singing, dancing and playing instruments at some point during the show,” he adds. “This group is going to blow the audience right out of the ‘Muddy Water.'”
Big River will undoubtedly be a learning experience for the budding talent on stage, but it’s also an educational opportunity for many local students. Continuing a program introduced with last year’s production of The Miracle Worker, Studio Tenn will again put on special performances for school field trips. These performances are made possible at no cost to students by collaborative efforts of Studio Tenn, the Franklin Theatre and participating schools.
Williamson County Schools Curriculum Specialist David Rector says the shows “align with our desire for student learning” and “bring to life the reading, the literature, the stories our students enjoy in our curriculum.”
Studio Tenn will continue expanding its school outreach programs, as education is a central tenet of its mission. “We believe the performing arts enrich the lives and enhance the learning experiences of all students, as well as help foster the next generation of creatives,” Speck says.
Tickets for Big River are on sale at FranklinTheatre.com and at their Box Office by calling (615) 538-2076. Group rates are available for parties of 10 or more. For more information about Studio Tenn Theatre Company, including upcoming productions, Season Tickets and sponsorship opportunities, visit StudioTenn.com or email email@example.com.
*Photo of Jackson Nance as Huckleberry Finn and John-Mark McGaha as Jim by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.