'Big River' opens floodgates on Baldwin

Musical coincides with confluence of historical places and events

Diana Gish remembers reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as a child and being mesmerized by the young boy's heroic river journey.

Gish and her best friend wanted desperately to travel by raft down the great Mississippi.

Next weekend they'll get their wish, if only in a roundabout way.

Gish has become surrogate captain of Huck's infamous raft as director of Baldwin City Community Theatre's summer musical, "Big River," the musical version of Mark Twain's classic novel, adapted for the stage by William Hauptman. Her best friend's son plays Tom Sawyer.

But it's not just personal connections that make the production so significant, Gish says.

"The more I think about it, the more meaningful I find this play to be for this town and this time," Gish says. "Our production of 'Big River' is sitting atop a great confluence of important historical places and events."

This year marks the 150th anniversary of "The Grand Excursion," the great steamboat flotilla that celebrated the first connection of America's railroad to the Mississippi River. It's also the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's famous travels, which began on the river.

And just last month, eyes across the country turned toward Topeka, where the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision was commemorated.

Although youngsters appreciate Twain's tale for its story of Huck's river adventure, the deeper journey is a personal transformation for Huck, who realizes that the escaped slave, Jim, is a man in his own right and worthy of respect.


Jared Soares/Journal-World Photo

Adam Canterbury, Baldwin, as Huck, left, and Ed Lammer, Ottawa, Huck's father, right, rehearse a scene from "Big River." The Baldwin City Community Theatre is staging the Broadway musical based on Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" at Baldwin Junior High.

"Even though this story is so old now, unfortunately these things are something we're still dealing with in society," Gish says.

She also notes that the Battle of Blackjack, the first battle over whether Kansas would be a free or slave state, occurred just outside of Baldwin.

Gish grew up in the small town south of Lawrence. In fact, her directing debut took place in second grade on the playground of what's now called the Baldwin Primary Center. She organized her classmates into little productions, and her teachers cleared time in class to have the plays performed.

Gish graduated from Baker University with a theater degree in 1982 and worked off and on in radio broadcasting for nearly 20 years before returning to Baldwin last summer.

"Big River" follows Twain's text rather closely, Gish says, although there's a bit more of a love story woven into the play, which won seven Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 1985. Country music legend Roger Miller wrote the music and lyrics.

Although the production will benefit from lighting, costumes, makeup and a specially designed set, Gish is counting on audience members to use their imaginations when watching the show.

Rather than trying to recreate the expansive Mississippi River, Gish and set designer Mark Kirk have created a dock scene in which workers move freight pieces that turn into set pieces.

The cast includes people from Baldwin, Olathe, Overland Park, Ottawa and Princeton. Mark Jones Jr., of Lawrence, plays the slave, Jim.

"I think the people in the show have so much heart," Gish says. "They're so genuine, and somehow the story's just flowing out of them."


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