With an inspirational tale based on the works of Mark Twain and a buoyant, country-inflected score written by Roger Miller, “Big River,” opening tonight at the Aspen District Theatre, was a logical choice for Aspen Community Theatre’s annual fall production. The 1985 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, “Big River” calls for a large cast, it has great songs, and it has roles that are part of the American vernacular. You may know nothing about the theater, but you still know the characters in this play.
In fact, the main character, Huckleberry Finn, has transcended literature and the stage to become an archetype for a certain kind of kid and a symbol of a disappearing way of growing up. He’s a character — and, in “Big River,” a role — laden with expectations and subject to observers’ preconceived notions of Twain’s eternal child. It’s a heavy burden for any young actor, especially one who will be taking on a starring role for the first time ever.
Carbondale’s Patrick Keleher, who will be playing Huck, got his start just two years ago with Aspen Community Theatre when he appeared onstage with his father, Brian, and grandfather, John, during ACT’s 40th anniversary show, “40 Years of Laughter and Tears.” Last year, Patrick and Brian filled the lesser roles of Concorde and Sir Bedevere, respectively, in “Spamalot,” but that was basically the extent of Patrick’s experience up to now. So when it came time to audition for “Big River,” he really didn’t think he’d be in the running for the biggest part.
“I went in hoping to get Tom Sawyer or one of the boys, a role that I thought would be appropriate,” said Patrick, 16, who is a junior at Roaring Fork High School. “When [director Marisa Post] called me and said, ‘You’re Huck Finn,’ I was like, ‘Why?’”
After the initial shock wore off, Patrick replied, “Sweet, I’ll do that,” and set about learning a role that he’d actually been preparing for most of his life (though he admitted to not having read the book).
“My family watched the old 1960s movie, I think when I was eight, and my brother and I would go up in our grandparents’ woods and pretend we were Huck,” he said. “Ever since I was a little kid I always had this character in my head of how I’d be if I was Huckleberry Finn, and now that I get to be him it’s just incredible.”
Advance preparation or not, it’s still a whopper of a role for a veritable theater neophyte, and it comes with the added difficulty of dialogue written in a Southern twang that doesn’t come easily to a kid going up in the Rockies.
“This has been the hardest show for me to memorize,” said Patrick. “Not just because of the amount of lines, but just the dialect — using ‘ain’t’ and all the tiny little things you have to watch out for in the lines.”
Nevertheless, the youngest Keleher, who nailed his role as Concorde last year, feels confident as the curtain gets set to rise, in part because of the supportive, professional-quality atmosphere that pervades any ACT production.
“I get nervous when I feel unprepared, and I do not feel unprepared at all,” he said. “So I think there will be a little bit of nerves 10, 15 minutes before I go out on stage, but as of now I don’t feel too nervous.”
“Big River,” which Keleher described as “really touching and really moving,” opens Friday at 7 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre and runs Nov. 10, 16 and 17 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available through aspenshowtix.com.