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HUCK AND HIS FRIENDS ARE RAFTING INTO CACHE VALLEY FOR A 1-NIGHT STAND

SHARE HUCK AND HIS FRIENDS ARE RAFTING INTO CACHE VALLEY FOR A 1-NIGHT STAND

Mark Twain's classic novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is standard literary fare throughout the English-speaking world.

But somehow, composer Roger Miller ("King of the Road," "Little Green Apples") never got around to reading the book until just a few years ago, when he was asked to write the score and lyrics for the musical adaptation, "Big River."Once he opened the novel he was awestruck by the language and imagery that swept him back to rural Oklahoma and the folks he grew up with, he says.

And on Friday the 13th - an unlucky day for some but a lucky day for Cache Valley - that imagery and language will be re-created as a national touring company stages "Big River" in the Kent Concert Hall of the Chase Fine Arts Center on the Utah State University campus. Curtain is at 8 p.m. The performance is for one night only.

"Big River" was a big hit on Broadway in 1985. It took the prestigious Tony Awards by storm, winning a raftful of the statuettes, including best musical, best score, best book, best direction, best scenery, best lighting and best featured actor in a musical. In addition, Miller also received the 1985 Drama Desk Award for his music and lyrics.

Even before the awards, there was considerable critical acclaim in the New York press, too. The show garnered such accolades as these:

- " `Big River' is the most hopeful, happy and impressive thing to happen to the American musical for many a year" (The New York Post).

- "The classic American musical with the most fetching score of the decade" (Time Magazine).

- " `Big River' is a big winner!" (The New York Times).

- "A musical replete with talent and intelligent ambition, one that touches feelings and thoughts worthy of civilized adults - and children" (Newsweek).

The national tour of "Big River" has been produced by Dennis Hitchcock and his Minneapolis-based Circa '21 productions. Director is Curt Wollan, artistic director of the Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis for the past 11 years.

The touring cast includes Ty Hreben as Huck Finn and Mark Lawrence as Jim.

Hreben most recently completed playing the role of Jesus in "Godspell" in Ohio. The Perrysburg, Ohio, native now resides in New York City, where he has appeared in such off-off-Broadway productions as "Side By Side By Sondheim" and as Nathan in "Shenandoah." He has a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater performance from the University of Michigan. He played the title roles in "Barnum" and "George M!" and portrayed Anthony in "Sweeney Todd" at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, Mich.

Lawrence is a native of Atlanta. He enjoys performing in musical theater. He's played in "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Godspell" and 444 performances as Joe in "Showboat." For the past 10 years he's performed in some of the biggest dinner theaters in the South and Midwest. Now a resident of Birmingham, Ala., he sings with the choirs of the Cathedral Church of Advent-Episcopal and Temple Emanu-El.

Many of the 16 cast members will perform multiple roles in "Big River." Accumulatively, the cast has a long list of credits, from off-Broadway to summer stock and dinner theater to regional productions throughout the country.

For one of the actresses, Latonya D. Holmes (Betsy), the trip through Utah is something of a homecoming. Two summers ago she portrayed Dorothy in "The Wiz" and Crystal in "The Little Shop of Horrors" at the Utah Musical Theatre series at Weber State College in Ogden. Originally from Warner Robins, Ga., she now considers Chicago as her second home.

For the past two years she has attended Roosevelt University, where Seth Reines, former artistic director for the Utah Musical Theatre, is a professor. Holmes is majoring in musical theater and starring in such productions as "Company," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

-ROGER MILLER soared to fame with the success of "Dang Me" (1964), the first of a series of hits that are now considered country music classics.

In the mid-'60s he performed one weekend at the old Valley Music Hall in North Salt Lake, during the former theater-in-the-round's heyday.

I reviewed the concert for the Ogden Standard-Examiner and, after the crowd had left, Roger invited me and a friend, Val Parrish, to visit for awhile backstage - and we didn't get away until well after midnight.

Even then, Miller had a reputation for being a little unorthodox. (The lyrics of many of his songs bend and break many of the cardinal rules of Proper English - but musical-literary license gives him that right.)

While performing at the Valley Music Hall, he got a little disoriented when the stage started revolving. As I recall, he asked the crew to turn the thing off and he moved around throughout the concert so that everyone had a chance to see him face to face.

His humor - as it always has been - was folksy and down-home (before "down-home" became a Nashville byword).

During our visit backstage, Miller entertained Parrish and me with a string of humorous tales and excitedly demonstrated one of the high-tech gimmicks that his newfound fame was allowing him to obtain - a briefcase telephone system, probably the forerunner of today's cellular phones.

Like many singers in the '50s and '60s, success didn't last through the '70s and his recording career came to a halt. Then in the early 1980s, producer Rocco Landesman coaxed him to write the music and lyrics for "Big River."

"When I started to talk to him," Miller says of his first visit with Landesman, "he knew every lyric that I had ever written. He got me the book of Huckleberry Finn, as well as the script for the play. I took it home and started walking around with it. Eventually I came up with `Hand for the Hog.' When I called Rocco to see if this was what he was looking for, he replied `That's exactly it!' I went from there to write `River in the Rain' and `Muddy Water.' It just started coming from different directions. I wrote from every corner of my heart for this show."

"The character of Pap is a lot like my Daddy that raised me, except he didn't drink and carry on like that. I wrote the song `Guv'ment' remembering how my Daddy used to cuss out the government. It's got light cussin' in it - not real bad cussin'," he adds.

"If we woke Mark Twain up now," Miller muses, "I hope I would have his blessing. I wanted to capture what Twain was feeling when he wrote the story. I'm not a Mark Twain scholar, but I think he was looking at the world with a jaundiced eye. Sort of with a wry look in his eye when commenting on the human race."

And sort of like Roger Miller has done with his music down through the years. - Ivan M. Lincoln