The Tony-Winning Red Clay Ramblers Will Perform in PlayMakers Rep’s Production of “Big River”

JASON EDWARD COOK as Huck. (All photos by Jon Gardiner)
Jason Edward Cook as Huck (all photos by Jon Gardiner)

On April 6-10, 12-17, and 19-24, PlayMakers Repertory Company will conclude its 35th main-stage season with a rip-roaring production of the Tony Award®-winning 1985 Broadway musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with North Carolina’s Tony-winning traditional string band the Red Clay Ramblers providing animated instrumental accompaniment for the show’s saucy songs by country-music legend Roger Miller (“King of the Road,” “Dang Me,” “England Swings”). The show will preview on April 6-8, officially open on April 9th, and run April 10, 12-17, and 19-24 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art.

“I was fortunate to see a production of Big River performed by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre that had both deaf and hearing actors,” remembers PlayMakers‘ producing artistic director Joseph Haj, who will direct first musical performed in nearly a decade by UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence. Haj adds, “I was struck by the beauty of that production; and when I thought about making a musical for our company, it immediately came to mind.”

Big River features a sassy script by William Hauptman, based on the epic 1884 novel by American literary giant Mark Twain (nee Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910). The musical made its Broadway debut, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Janet Watson, on April 25, 1985 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where it played for 1,005 performances before closing on Sept. 20, 1987. Big River won seven 1985 Tony Awards, including the Tonys for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Ron Richardson as Jim), Best Scenic Design (Heidi Landesman), and Best Lighting Design (Richard Riddell). The show also one eight Drama Desk Awards, including the awards for Outstanding Music, Lyrics, and Orchestrations.

Jason Edward Cook as Huck and David Aron Damane as Jim.

Director Joe Haj says, “Big River follows the adventures of 14-year-old Huckleberry Finn (Jason Edward Cook) and [Miss Watson’s slave] Jim (David Aron Damane) on their epic journey down the Mississippi River. Huck has been living with the Widow Douglas (DeDe Corvinus) and her sister Miss Watson (Kelsey Didion) since the disappearance of his abusive alcoholic father Pap (Jimmy Kieffer).

David Aron Damane as Jim

“When Jim learns Miss Watson plans to sell him, he escapes,” says Haj. “Huck escapes from his father; and the two end up on Jackson’s Island, where they start their adventure. Along the way, they meet two rapscallions — the King (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and the Duke (Scott Ripley) — who lure Huck into helping with their schemes — [and] eventually the [King and the Duke] sell Jim.

“Huck, faced with choice of whether or not he should do the right thing, decides to go after Jim, break him out of captivity, and set him free,” explains director Joe Haj. “[Huck] finds himself reunited with his old friend Tom Sawyer (John Dreher), and the two carry out a rescue that you will not forget!”

Besides the actors and actresses named above, other cast members in PRC’s production of Big River include (in alphabetical order): David Adamson as Second Man/Counselor Robinson, LeDawna Akins as Alice, Brett Bolton as First Man/Sheriff Bell, Bryan Burton as Ben/Hank/Young Fool, Toshia Cunningham as Alice’s Daughter, Ray Dooley as Judge Thatcher/Harvey Wilkes/Silas Phelps, Matt Garner as Simon/Lafe, Meredith Jones as Mary Jane Wilkes, Katie Paxton as Dick/Andy, Jessica Sorgi as Joanna Wilkes, and Josh Tobin as Jo Harper.

Big River director Joe Haj says, “As their journey [on a raft down the Mississippi River] takes place, Huck and Jim become friends and develop a strong kinship bound by respect, trust, humor and love for one another.”

In fact, Joe Haj says, “One of the issues that drew me to [Big River] is the exploration around the temporary nature of life, of happiness, of freedom. Even as Huck and Jim journey down the river sharing stories, you can never forget that Jim could be taken at any moment and sold back into slavery.

“[Big River] has wide emotional arcs,” Haj claims. “One minute, you are laughing at the town fool’s simple, silly song and the next you are profoundly moved by Huck and Jim’s discovery of a shared humanity in the beautiful ‘World’s Apart.’ It is a coming-of-age story for Huck. This is also the first musical I’ve directed, and I was excited by the challenge.”

Joe Haj adds, “Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers is our musical director. We are so fortunate to work on this piece with the Ramblers. Interestingly, they worked on the original production at La Jolla Playhouse in 1984, and as a result they bring a wealth of knowledge and history to this process.

“For our production,” Haj says, “we will have the band playing on stage with the actors, so they become a part of Huck’s world. They live in Huck’s storytelling.”

He adds, “I have been very fortunate to collaborate with Jack [Herrick] on several projects, such as Pericles at PlayMakers [in 2008] and Hamlet at Washington DC’s Folger Theatre [in 2010]. He is always a great artistic partner.”

In addition to director Joe Haj and musical director Jack Herrick, the PlayMakers Repertory Company for Big River includes assistant director Kathryn Hunter-Williams, choreographer Casey Sams, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer McKay Coble, lighting designer Charlie Morrison, costume designer Bill Black, sound designer/engineer Ryan J. Gastelum, vocal coach Bonnie Raphael, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Gregory Kable, and stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

“One of the major challenges of this show is the raft and how to maneuver it,” reveals director Joe Haj. “When so much of the play takes place on this raft, it has to be practical, it has to move, and people have to move on and off of it.

“At the same time,” Haj explains, “we need to keep everyone safe, so that has been a particular challenge with this show. Another challenge is how do you bring the Mississippi River into a theater?!?”

Haj says, “Our scenic designer, McKay Coble, has done a wonderful job of bringing the Mississippi River to life. We’re opening up the stage to the back wall of the theater, so we get the feeling of the expanse and breadth of the Mississippi River.

“We’ll have a series of platforms that pivot on the stage, where we play the interior scenes, then they pivot out to create the river,” says Joe Haj. “The floor of the stage is imprinted with an historic map of the Mississippi River. And, of course, there is the raft that will carry Huck and Jim on their adventure down river….

“Lighting designer Charlie Morrison also created the lights for our season opener, As You Like It,” Haj notes. “He brings terrific talent and sensibility to enhancing a set in order to capture the moments and moods necessary to tell the story.”

Director Joe Haj adds, “Our costume designer, Bill Black, is creating a pretty realistic look for the actors. Just a few of the silhouettes have been softened; and the color palate has been muted, so we watch the characters moving in a world where hard work, sunlight, and the river is very present. We wanted to keep the clothing in a very real mode, nothing cartoonish, and yet also working to make the characters pop in contrast to the neutral colors of the set.”

SECOND OPINION: April 6th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Nidhi Singh:

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents BIG RIVER at 7:30 p.m. April 6-8 Previews, 7:30 p.m. April 9 Opening Night, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 10, 7:30 p.m. April 12-15, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 16, 2 p.m. April 17, 7:30 p.m. April 19-22, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 23, and 2 p.m. April 24 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.

TICKETS: $10-$35, except $45 Opening Night show and reception of April 9th.

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311,, or SHOW:






NOTE 1: On April 13th and 17th, there will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors.

NOTE 2: There will be 10:30 a.m. Student Matinee Performances on April 13th and April 21st (for details, see

NOTE 3: The Prologue Series, created by PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Library, will present a pre-show conversation with a member of the PlayMakers creative team at the library at 12 noon on April 16th.

NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh ( will audio describe the 7:30 p.m. April 19th performance, which will also be sign-language interpreted.

NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation ( and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society ( will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by John Tisdale, DMin, after the 7:30 p.m. April 23rd and 2 p.m. April 24th performances.


The Musical: (R&H Theatricals), (Wikipedia), and (Internet Broadway Database).

Roger Miller: (official website) and (Wikipedia).

William Hauptman: (official website) and (Wikipedia).

The Novel: (Wikipedia).

The Novel (e-text): (Project Gutenberg).

Mark Twain: (Wikipedia).

Red Clay Ramblers: (official website) and (Wikipedia).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at] and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).