Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Raise the rafters: National Players stage Twain classic

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Stan Barouh
Take me to the river: Isaiah Johnson plays Jim and Sam Ludwig is Huck in Olney Theatre Center’s production of ‘‘Big River,” an adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel ‘‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Mark Twain was a musician.

Better known, perhaps, as a humorist, journalist, satirist and creator of some of the best-known characters in American literature, Twain — born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835 — was an accomplished guitarist and a singer-songwriter. According to Bianca Soros, who wrote about the literary legend in Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Twain played a Martin guitar ‘‘for newspaper men of the Nevada Territories, miners from California’s Gold Rush days and for passengers aboard Ajax, a clipper ship bound for the Hawaiian Islands.”

So it should come as no surprise that ‘‘Big River,” the 1986 Tony-award winning adaptation of Twain’s classic novel, ‘‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is a musical, full of country twang. The story is about the adventures of an abused boy and the runaway slave with whom he escapes down the Mississippi. The score was composed by Roger Miller, best known for the song ‘‘King of the Road,” and it offers elements from the full spectrum of Americana.

‘‘The music here runs the gamut,” says Eve Muson, who directs ‘‘Big River” on the Olney Theatre Center’s Historic Mainstage. ‘‘Folk, country, bluegrass – with a healthy dose of spirituals and gospel music.

‘‘We have songs that sound a bit like Patsy Cline; we have songs that sound like Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

And every one is infused with youthful enthusiasm – because ‘‘Big River” features the National Players, a troupe of young professional actors who are big on talent but (for the most part) have yet to earn their Equity cards.

‘‘The idea is to nurture young talent,” says Muson, who is also a professor in the Boston University theater department that is chaired by Olney’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa. ‘‘To create a bridge between the university or conservatory or studio and the professional stage.”

For the actors, she says, it’s ‘‘a professional opportunity in a professional setting, with a salary and rules and regulations.” For the audience, it’s a chance to see talented, energetic young actors do their thing. And for Olney, it’s a great way to spot and retain talent – like Patricia Hurley, who went from last summer’s production of ‘‘Godspell” to acclaim in mainstage productions of ‘‘The Fiddler on the Roof” and ‘‘Doubt.”

Muson points out that ‘‘our aesthetic is to pick titles that have a literary value – or they’re from the ‘great literature’ of musical theater.

‘‘This play does both,” she observes. ‘‘And we had an interest in doing summer musicals here, for our audience, which loves musicals.”

‘Just acting’

Sam Ludwig knows all about that. He was in Olney’s last musical, ‘‘1776,” turning a small part into a big moment when he sang ‘‘Momma Look Sharp.”

‘‘It’s just acting,’ shrugs Ludwig, 20, a Vienna, Va., native who left Ithaca College after a semester to follow his acting dreams. He played sports in high school, mostly, but started taking voice lessons when he failed to get a plum role in ‘‘Chicago” freshman year.

‘‘It was all leads from there on out,” he chuckles – he has an easy, cocky way about him that makes him an excellent Huck Finn. And he sees the connections between Finn and his character from ‘‘1776” who lived a century earlier.

‘‘The characters are similar in so many ways,” he points out. ‘‘A young person coming to terms with adulthood, with so much bubbling below the surface.”

Ludwig was in ‘‘Titanic” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, ‘‘Titanic” director Chris Youstra was the ‘‘1776” musical director and Ludwig’s performance in the revolutionary musical led to his casting in ‘‘Big River.”

‘‘It’s insane,” he says. ‘‘This is far and away the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’m in 14 of 21 songs – I’m in drag! – there are combat scenes, alienating devices.”

The secret to finding Huck’s character?

‘‘I had to get out of my head and into his heart,” he says. ‘‘This is the audience surrogate, the Twain surrogate.”

And the guy who has to sing, dance, mug – and, oh yes, use ‘‘the n-word.” That’s not easy, but Ludwig has thought it out in terms of Twain’s overriding wisdom and irony.

‘‘What we’re learning about [Huck],” he says, ‘‘is that he’s the only [white person] of character – yet he gets that horrible epithet [to say].”

It’s not easy being Huck Finn. Not to worry, though.

‘‘Acting is my day job,” says Ludwig, and his blue eyes twinkle – he may or may not be joking. ‘‘Ultimately, I want to subvert the cultural paradigm.

‘‘It’s a lofty and pretentious goal,” he adds, ‘‘but I think I’d be a really good celebrity.”

Old soul

Isaiah Johnson plays Jim, the runaway slave who shares Huck’s river adventures and provides the moral compass for the play.

Johnson is 27, but Muson describes him as an ‘‘old soul,” and he agrees.

‘‘I spent a lot of time with the elders in my community,” he says. ‘‘They never treated me or thought of me as a child.”

Muson provides the adjective ‘‘dazzling” to describe Johnson — honestly, that’s the only one that will do – and points out that he is the cast’s sole Equity actor.

‘‘He’s so good,” she says. ‘‘Now the other actors are aspiring to his level; they have a role model.”

Born in California and raised in the South, Johnson moved with his musical military parents to Alaska at age 12.

‘‘It was a huge culture shock for me,” he admits, but says he ‘‘loves Alaska.”

He brought his love of singing and performing with him, and during high school took part in the Anchorage Youth Court, a program that allows high school students with an interest in law to serve as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and bailiffs for young offenders.

‘‘It’s a great training program,” he says. ‘‘It was pretty much youth-run – we handled all the juvenile cases in Alaska.

‘‘It helped us on so many different levels. I poured myself into it!” When he came to D.C.’s Howard University as a freshman, Johnson was a political science major, all set to forge a brilliant career as a lawyer.

‘‘I changed my major on the first day of classes,” he says. ‘‘Al Freeman, Jr. – I saw him teaching. I walked by his class and I was star struck!”

Back in Alaska, Johnson’s dad noticed the switch to musical theater as soon as he received his son’s first progress report.

‘‘He was very big on the fallback plan,” Johnson notes, ‘‘but he was OK with it.”

These days, the upbeat actor lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and is more about achieving goals than worrying about fallback plans. He earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Howard and is finishing up a master’s in fine arts at New York University. Next up is a doctorate.

‘‘My love is in education and the arts,” he explains. ‘‘And my goal is to start a charter school.”

So how does a lover of education to play a slave denied every opportunity to learn? Not without a bit of trepidation.

‘‘The most difficult aspect for me, personally, is trying to get into Jim’s mindset,” says Johnson. ‘‘The challenge is to see the world through ‘uneducated’ eyes.”

‘‘What drives this man? How does he see the world with that country wisdom? Jim is a person who is well thought out. Nothing goes over his head.”

Although ‘‘Big River” is a musical, Johnson says he sees Jim’s character as someone conditioned by ‘‘the silence of servitude: He takes everything in.

‘‘Being a black man in that tumultuous period, your freedom of self-expression is silenced...but where does that silent consciousness take him?”

It’s a question Muson says is at the heart of ‘‘Big River” – and ‘‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” She hopes audiences will find connections between this musical and ‘‘1776.”

‘‘These Tony Award-winning musicals kind of speak to each other,” she says. ‘‘Mark Twain started writing his novel in 1876 – the centennial of the Declaration of Independence – amid the crumbling of the promise of Reconstruction.

‘‘‘Big River’ is kind of saying, ‘OK, Ben Franklin, what you left undone is still undone.’”

And saying it with a musical score even Mark Twain could love.

‘‘Big River” runs through July 27 on the Historic Mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25. Call 301-924-3400 or visit