July 18--Theater is a marvelous way of bringing people together, both onstage and off.
Characters onstage may form relationships that meld two worlds, while the actors and crew can form relationships and bonds among themselves that can often seem incongruous, though magical.
This is most evident in the Lafayette Theatre Company's upcoming production of the musical, "Big River." Based on Mark Twain's classic novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and with music by American songwriter Roger Miller, the musical highlights the unlikely friendship that exists between a white vagabond, Huck Finn, and a slave, Jim, as they embark on an adventure that both hope will lead them to freedom.
Offstage, an unlikely bond has developed between the two actors as well. TJ Abner, who plays Jim, is a veteran of local stages having attended Troup High School and Columbus State University. His ever-present puckish grin is in contrast to shy and reserved Aaron Burgess, who is playing Huck Finn. Burgess is a rising sophomore at Harris County High School and only just getting started in theater.
The admiration between the two is apparent. "I didn't know TJ before this. He brings out the best of me onstage. He's a good mentor," Burgess says of Abner.
"He reminds me of myself: he has a lot of energy. I'm helping him gain focus. He can be great if he puts forth enough effort," replies Abner, admiringly.
The show's director, Valerie Longshore, says it's "interesting to watch the two of them combine their talents. They both have raw talent, but I'm beginning to see TJ influence Aaron's work."
Just before a run-through of the first act, TJ, Aaron and Connor Armstrong -- who's playing Tom Sawyer -- warm up together onstage. Led by TJ, there is a definite chemistry between the trio of actors.
This theme of a melding of worlds run through the rest of the cast and crew. A trio of veteran actors -- besides Abner, including Braden Norton and Jeff Sargent -- work alongside a host of high school thespians with a handful of college students in the mix. Among the high schoolers are students from rival high schools, LaGrange, Callaway and Troup High Schools as well as Harris County High School -- where Longshore is the theater teacher.
"The rivalries just break down and everyone just comes and does theater," responds Longshore.
These odd bonds and relationships come together to create an extraordinary evening of theater.
"People who read the book in high school will know the characters and the adventure will be very familiar," suggests Longshore. "It's kinda like hearing a fairy tale but you enjoy seeing it being retold."
The music brings together elements of country, bluegrass and African-American spirituals. By Roger Miller, among whose hits are classics like "King of the Road," the "music is a continuation of the dialogue," continues Longshore, "it's not a show about big, Broadway show tunes, the songs simply compliment the story."
Capturing the width and the breadth of the Antebellum-era Mississippi River onstage is obviously a challenge exacerbated by the limited space of the LSPA's Blackbox Theater. Longshore and her husband, Jeff Sargent devised a thrust stage covered with dock-like planking to serve as the playing area. This "stage brings the action extremely close to the audience and creates a more intimate experience for them," Longshore says.
This show is being presented as "picnic-theater" with the theater setting up tables and the audience bringing a meal to eat prior to the show. This is often a fun way to spend an evening with friends and family or meet new people.
Ultimately, this motley amalgam of theater people remind us through words and music that though we are "worlds apart" we can be brought together by love, admiration and friendship that can span even the wide, muddy waters of a big river.
"Big River" opens July 25. It will run July 25-27 and August 2-3 at 7:30 p.m. A matinee will be performed August 4 at 2:30 p.m. The show will be performed at the LSPA Blackbox Theater at 214 Bull Street. Reservations are required and may be made by calling the LSPA at (706) 882-9909. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students. For this picnic theater event the doors will open an hour prior to the show.
(c)2013 the LaGrange Daily News (LaGrange, Ga.)
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