BENNINGTON, VT. — Riverboats. Overalls. Straw hats. They all sound like familiar props from a Mark Twain novel, right? Well, add in a cast of 16, a band of four, and a dusting of humanity, and you get the award-winning musical comedy "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The musical opens Friday, July 8, at Oldcastle Theatre Company, and runs through July 24. Music and lyrics are by Roger Miller, from the book by William Hauptmann. The show won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, and seven Drama Desk Awards. Oldcastle's artistic director Eric Peterson said he "wanted to produce it since first seeing it on Broadway."
"The music is just fantastic and cast deeply talented," Peterson said. "We have a four piece band under the musical direction of John Foley, and overall directing is 2016 Kennedy Center honoree Tim Howard. That's a stacked lineup."
"Big River," Peterson added, is a natural complement to Mark Twain's classic story, one he called "instructive to this day in a uniquely American way. It's one of our nation's great works of literature."
Oldcastle's 2016 slate strategically positions "Big River," the season's only musical, into the second spot of the season.
Peterson said that's a calculated shift from the past two years to help build audience awareness of Oldcastle and its newer venue at 331 Main St., where the company moved three years ago.
"Popular musicals attract major crowds, which in turn expose new visitors to what an outstanding regional theatre is just a short drive away," Peterson said. "We noticed a few years ago how audiences swelled in the shows after musicals, so now instead of second to last in the schedule, our musical will be second."
And what a musical this promises to be, according to longtime Oldcastle favorite Peter Langstaff. The veteran actor, like many in the cast, will play several characters.
"'Big River' is a light-hearted romp into Mark Twain's Huck Finn that we all read in school," Langstaff said. "It has some dark undertones but is full of humor. It shows us a young man's willingness to get on a raft and float down a river without any plan or care. It's something only the young are willing or able to do."
Most people, Langstaff continued, seem to always "retain the memories of such activities, or at least the dreams of them, which is what makes this story so appealing."
Director Tim Howard concurred, saying that the added musical element and the size of the cast — Oldcastle's largest ever — will add to the story line and spectacle.
"We not only have a four-piece band, but also a few actors who can play instruments and will get a chance to showcase their talents," Howard said. "Then when you get them coming on and off stage playing multiple parts, what the audience will see is a feast of the senses."
Veteran Oldcastle actor Gary Allan Poe will help stock that feast. Poe, who has done just about everything one can do on stage in a decades-long career, conceded with a chuckle that he had not acted in a musical "in quite some time."
Still, it's can-do attitudes like Poe's that have permeated the venerable Bennington troupe.
"Sure, I'm going to have to work on a few technical things," Poe said after a long day of rehearsal. "But the energy among all the cast — you can just feel it every moment we're together. This show is going to bring out our best. I think the audience is going to feel it once we're out there on stage. There's nothing more entertaining than that."
ON STAGE ...
What: "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman.
When: Runs July 8 through July 24
Where: Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
Information: 802-447-0564; oldcastletheatre.org