In 1984, the Red Clay Ramblers played in the pre-Broadway run of Roger Miller’s musical, “Big River.”
Now, 27 years later, the band is returning to the stage to play that original music again.
SEE “BIG RIVER”
Time: Premieres 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, runs through April 24
Location: Paul Green Theatre
After two years of planning, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting “Big River” — a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — with musical direction from the Ramblers.
The Ramblers — who originated in North Carolina — are best known for their folk and bluegrass style. The group has toured around the world and continues to work in musicals, including “Fool Moon,” for which they won a Tony award in 1999.
Director and PlayMakers’ managing artistic director Joseph Haj said the musical includes condensed forms of original dialogue and scenes from the classic American novel.
Musicals bring new challenges to the stage, Haj said. There must be a constant sync between the actors and the music.
“The scale of a musical is so different from a play,” Haj said. “With 20 actors and a band on stage, it’s more complicated than doing a straight play.”
“Big River” tells the story of Finn and his 19th century adventures in a musical form.
The novel — which details racial discrimination and the liberation of a slave — faced recent scrutiny after an Alabama publishing company republished the book, replacing the N-word with “slave.”
But producing the musical in the midst of this national debate proved more interesting than troublesome, Haj said.
In November 2009, Haj contacted Jack Herrick — a member of the Ramblers — and asked him to direct the musical components of the production.
For the upcoming play, the Ramblers have kept all of the original songs, with slight revisions.
“We did add new underscoring to fit the instrumentation,” Herrick said. “We haven’t really revisited the show.”
Haj and the Ramblers have previously collaborated on three productions, including PlayMakers’ “Pericles” and a production of “Hamlet” in Washington, D.C.
Last September, the Ramblers performed at Memorial Hall in place of legendary banjoist Earl Scruggs.
Sean McKeithan, marketing and communications coordinator for Carolina Performing Arts, said that the group has deep ties to the Chapel Hill community.
“They really love being on campus,” McKeithan said. “They have a really great relationship with the audience and can incorporate storytelling.”
Haj said he is pleased to have worked with the Ramblers.
“They have a sophisticated understanding of what the play wants,” he said. “I’m crazy about these guys.”
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