It is no slam to say that Casa Mañana’s production of Big River, the Roger Miller musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which opens Saturday , may be a bit “bookish.”
“I have decided to set the show in a library,” says Eric Woodall, the production’s director. “It has never been done that way to my knowledge. The pages of the book come to life. So the audience will be able to look through the eyes of a contemporary young high school student as he is pulled into the story and taken back to the 1840s. It is a way to give a nod to Mark Twain and the literary nature of this beautiful story, while still giving proper honor and love to the music.”
And this music, composed by the man who gave the world King of the Road and You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd (and who was born in Fort Worth, by the way), has met with a lot of love since its Broadway debut in 1985.
The show ran for more than 1,000 performances before closing more than two years later. It earned seven Tony Awards in that initial run, including best musical, and received still another after a brief Broadway revival in 2003.
“I gravitate toward things I am very passionate about,” says Woodall, who is usually busy as a New York casting director. “But I am sometimes able to take short leaves to direct shows, and I have always wanted to direct this show. It was one of the first musicals I ever saw as a boy growing up in North Carolina.”
The performers Woodall has lined up for this production would have to be any casting director’s dream team.
Jaston Williams, of Greater Tuna fame, will be playing the nefarious Duke.
Local favorite David Coffee is the Duke’s partner, the King. And perhaps the biggest treat will be the return of Julie Johnson to Casa’s stage in the double role of the Widow Douglas and Sally Phelps.
“My mother loved Broadway shows, so she would take me on those two-hour drives to Fort Worth to see the shows at Casa,” says Johnson, who has performed on stages from here to New York, while continuing to live in Whitewright.
Johnson first performed at Casa in 1988. She has been a popular musical theater actress ever since, and she placed another gem in the crown of her career recently when she was featured in her first national touring production of a Broadway musical.
“We played 55 cities in 42 states,” recalls Johnson of her 21-month run in the hit musical Memphis, which made a stop at Bass Hall this year.
Johnson says the tour was “one of the most wonderful experiences” of her career, because of the material and the great reception it received.
“I felt very strongly about the message [of racial tolerance] that show had,” says Johnson, who is especially well known for her spot-on portrayals of country great Patsy Cline.
But Johnson also particularly enjoyed the Memphis tour because she made it a family affair.
“I took my son, Trey, along. We drove as much as we could, and saw so much of the beauty of this country,” says Johnson, whose voice is familiar to millions (whether they know it or not) because she provided the voice of Baby Bop, a character on the Barney children’s television show, for 20 years. “I didn’t want us to see airports in 42 states. I wanted us to see the states.”
Johnson says that Trey enjoyed the tour, which saw him doing support work such as selling programs. But we are still talking a mom and son here.
“God never meant for a 14-year-old boy to go through puberty while his mother was going through menopause,” says Johnson, with typically candid humor. “Trey has made it clear to me that that is his last national tour.”
While Johnson is especially appreciated for the vocal power she brings to a role, she possesses other talents.
“We are so tickled to have her. She brings a wonderful Southern charm and sense of humor to the role. She’s just a star,” says Woodall. “But her real highlights in this show are two acting pieces.”
“I love both aspects of musical theater. I want the opportunity to act and do scene work [and] to develop a character,” says Johnson, who was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, an honor given by a Washington, D.C., theater to local and touring shows that is now in its 29th year, for her Memphis role. “And then take that character further by singing a song, which I always look at as a monologue, anyway. That song, in a well-written musical, reveals that character in a way the spoken word can’t.”