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Vocal Talent Carries 'Big River'

Aldersgate Church Community Theater stages story of Huck Finn.

The hall at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church fills with the unique sound of Roger Miller's score for his only Broadway musical, the country-twanged telling of Mark Twain's story of Huck Finn, and there is a sense of joy for songs like "Waitin' For The Light To Shine," "River In The Rain" and "Do Ya Wanna Go To Heaven?"

Aldersgate Church Community Theater is presenting the musical "Big River" through July 10 with a cast of 21 and an orchestra of 10. Dru Vander-Linden, one of the founding members of the 15-year-old theater troupe, is the stage director for this production. She gets some good performances out of principals and supporting players although the acting talents available are mixed.

The prime contribution, however, comes from Jeff Taylor, who, as musical director, was responsible for both the performance of the orchestra which he conducts and for the vocal work of the entire cast which is excellent.

Heading the cast are two teams of performers, one of solid veterans and one with less name identification on local stages. David Seemiller is a name that may not seem familiar yet, but should now be remembered for his strong work as Huck Finn. He gets the combination of gangling awkwardness and assured swagger of youth just right and he sings very well indeed, especially when he teams up with Edmund Sallis as the runaway slave, Jim.

Sallis' acting leaves a bit to be desired, but when he opens his mouth to sing, you know why he was cast. Both his "Free at Last" and "Muddy Water" are very well sung, but on opening weekend he was still unsure enough to require constant eye contact with the conductor for each song.

The more familiar team is made up of Donald Neal and Mario Font. Neal has been frequently seen on many local stages is best known for his portrayal of Benjamin Franklin in "1776" at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Font appeared here in "Hello, Dolly!" in 2003. They team up as the hucksters who masquerade as the Duke of Bridgewater and the Dauphin of France. Font in particular adds a great deal of energy and confidence to the production.

INDIVIDUAL SUPPORTING ROLES offer a number of delights. Frequent Aldersgate player Marie Wakefield does her best work in quite a while in the dual roles of the spinster who torments Huck over his manners, Miss Watson, and the girl he saves from losing a fortune in the final fraud. She leads a fabulous trio on "You Oughta Be Here With Me" with Julia King and Sarah Spiece.

David Rowe, performing in a walking cast after breaking his foot, does a fine job as Tom Sawyer and Ben Robles does justice to the difficult to deliver drunken diatribe "Guv'ment" as Huck's "Pap." Even smaller roles get nice work from cast members like Teddy Gron who is both a manipulative "Judge Thatcher" and a caring "Silas Phelps."

The version of "Big River" being performed at Aldersgate differs from both the original Broadway production of 1985 and its recent revival which played earlier this year at Ford's Theatre in Washington. It is closer to the original production as the revival was performed in a blend of full-throated singing and signing in American Sign Language by a cast consisting of both hearing and deaf actors.

The original production reflected Mark Twain's handling of the racial issues of discrimination along the pre-civil war Mississippi River which functioned as the lifeblood of commerce in the slave-holding south as well as a highway to freedom for runaway slaves seeking passage to the north.

ALDERSGATE'S PRODUCTION treats the issues more as involving slavery than race. Yes, the runaway slave Jim is played by a black man and is referred to that way in the short piece of dialogue that asks if the man hidden on the raft is white or black. But all the other references to what sets him apart from Huck Finn and his world is his status as a slave.

Missing is the lovely song of discovery "Worlds Apart" in which Huck and Jim find that one sees the same world through brown eyes as the other does through blue. Instead, Huck finds it strange to learn that a slave could care for "his people" just like free people do.

Still, the strength of this musical is the music and this cast, supported by a very solid orchestra, delivers the most important material very well.

Brad Hathaway has covered theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.