MSU Summer Theatre wraps with ‘Big River’

What could be more appealing for a lazy Dakota summer evening than a leisurely sail down the river?

“Big River,” the musical finale of the Minot State University Summer Theatre season which opens Friday, offers much more, according to director Kevin Neuharth.

“This play has amazing music, a wonderful familiar story, and a marvelous cast,” he said.

“‘Big River,’ along with ‘1776’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ are my three favorite musicals,” he said. “I’ve wanted to direct it ever since I saw it performed at Walhalla several years ago, and this year things finally came together so we could tackle it. I think ‘Big River’ rounds out my bucket list as a director.”

Neuharth praised his cast and crew, beginning with Joe Bussey, a University of North Dakota graduate student who plays Huckleberry Finn, and J’Kobe Wallace, who takes on the role of Jim, the runaway slave.

Roger Miller, American singer and composer who created the music and lyrics, teamed with William Hauptman, who did the book, to tackle Mark Twain’s beloved classic story, a tale Neuharth said is instructive as well as entertaining.

Zack Lee performs as Mark Twain and Brett Olson plays Tom Sawyer. Sarah Thom appears as the Widow Douglas and Peg Morris plays Miss Watson, who set out to salvage Huckleberry. Katie Langemo is Jo Harper and David Iversen plays Huckleberry’s abusive, drunken father Pap Finn.

The director said a very basic set of three platforms, reminiscent of docks along the Mississippi River, is where Huck’s adventures play out, which works well to shift from one setting to another.

“This show has interesting challenges,” Neuharth said. “We have a high school kid singing Jim, and the actor playing the kid is really much older, but they work together so well.”

He said the cast had an added challenge, with “Big River” immediately following performances of “Spamalot,” the other big show in the schedule. Scheduling changes for Minot Public Schools and needs of the cast necessitated the short break, but the group has risen to the challenge.

An advantage for his actors, Neuharth said, is having Joe Koppinger and Tom Rakness, summer theater alumni, performing as The King and The Duke, two scalawags who intercept Jim and Huck as they take their raft down the river.

“It’s good for my less-experienced actors to see a couple of professionals taking on these roles,” Neuharth said.

Another surprise for the audiences is to see Jasmine Massingill, pianist for the orchestra, also take on an acting role. Lucas Brown is music director; Breanna Heupel is stage manager assisted by Katana Jenne, and Langemo is in charge of choreography.

“Everybody should know this great story,” Neuharth said, “all about great adventures and finding a little luck along the way, the kind of good luck that makes us want to have adventures.”

“Big River,” which runs through July 23, begins at 8:30 p.m. For reservations, call 858-3228 during business hours. Tickets are $10 for deck seats, $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, $5 for those 12 or younger, and $3 for MSU faculty, staff and summer students.