Freedom Weekes and Isaac Assor read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” last year, when they were juniors at New Rochelle High School.
This weekend, they lead a cast of 46 in making Twain’s classic tale sing, in Roger Miller’s stage adaptation, “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
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Assor is Huck and Weekes is Jim, the runaway slave. Together, they float down the Mississippi, encountering characters funny and evil, growing closer and learning how the world works.
Weekes said he found the novel “a bit annoying at first because it would go off into these tangents, but once you started reading it, everything pieced together.”
Assor, too, took a while to warm to the novel and found the language offensive at times.
“You just have to recognize the message and what Mark Twain was trying to say,” Assor said.
“Everybody has this preconceived idea about Huck, that he’s this kid that has nothing to say, knows nothing about the world. In that sense, it starts out that way, but in the story he starts to recognize that things around him are not the way they should be. There’s a lot of maturation for the character,” he said.
Weekes said it’s not easy playing Jim from the vantagepoint of 2010.
“It’s hard for me to take on the role of a slave because I’m not usually the person to think like a slave, to consider himself lower than other people. I’m not usually like that.”
After all, his name is Freedom.
“In a lot of the scenes, I can’t make eye contact, I have to keep my head down all the time. I’m the kind of person who makes eye contact all the time. It’s weird for me, but that’s the way this character is.”
If the role is stretching Weekes’ acting chops, Roger Miller’s songs are doing the same for his voice. Weekes, a tenor, is singing a role written for an actor with a deeper voice.
The song “Worlds Apart” sets up a major theme of the story, Weekes said: that the slave world and the free world occupy the same world.
“I’m letting Huck know that we’re friends but we’re living in two different worlds. You see things differently. I see things differently even though we’re looking at the same thing. We see it differently because we grew up in different worlds.”
For Assor, the song “Muddy Water” really sets the tone.
“It’s when we first set off down the river and it shows that we both have something to run from and we have to depend on each other on this journey. It’s the first time that everything kind of comes to life.”
Both are stepping up into these major roles, having largely played in ensembles up until now, although Assor played Father in “Ragtime” two years ago.
“We’ve been going to school together for years,” Assor said. “It’s nice to get to know each other again working on the show.”
Among the riverbank characters Huck and Finn encounter are The King (David Cohan) and The Duke (Jake Backer), two fun-loving grifters who share the raft for a spell.
“What’s so unsettling about it is that they are so funny, the two of them, that when they show their true colors — they’re really evil — it’s pretty powerful,” Assor said. “They’re so likeable that you want to like them. They really do con everybody.”
Backer said Huck has no idea what he’s getting himself into with The King and The Duke — “he talks about learning tricks from the rascals” — but before long The King sets him straight “and he realizes how dangerous we really are.”
The ruses they pull off get more and more malicious, Backer said, and Huck concluded “it was enough to make a body disgusted of the whole human race.”
These roles, while dark, have more levity than the work they did last fall, when Backer played Biff Loman to Cohan’s Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”
“That show was a bundle of smiles,” deadpans Cohan.
What: “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Where: New Rochelle High School’s Whitney M. Young Auditorium, 265 Clove Road, New Rochelle.
When: 8 p.m. April 22, 23, 24; 2 p.m. April 25.
Tickets: $10, $7 seniors and students. At the door, no reservations required.
With: Issac Assor, Cassie White, Mara Savarese, Kevin Levine, Zack Manley, Jon Latz, Josh Herman, Chris Brown, Matthew Moliterno, Freedom Weekes, Sophie Hirsh, Dane Giuffre, Russell Rothenberg, David Cohan, Jake Backer, J.A.Ford, Kadia Anderson, Naima Thomas, Sarah Bedrick, Lizzie Bedrick, Allie Gendreau, Grace Deane, Yoni Schanzer, Danielle McLean, Raj Basak, Nicolai Palmer, Giri Mehta, Kali Steverson, Macarme Augustin, Debora Luzincourt, Sabine Edjengule, Julianna DeMicco, Amanda Murphy, Jennifer Ornstein, Shayna Feuer, Anna Tyrell, Anne Jacobs, Madeline Slade, Jessica Agee, Claire Deane, Ashley Turcan, Sara Evangelista, Samanta Evangelista, Leah Seisfeld, Leah Sosis, Talia Seidenfeld, Luis Ayala, Anthony Cirecelli, Robert DiSapia, Morgan Flegar, Jessica Garcia, Suzana Grashi, Aron Hollander, Anne Jacobs, Jon Latz, Maribel Lopez, Sunu Mathew, Lauren Miceli, Matthew Moliterno, Cindy Munguia, Kelly Nagl, Brianna O’Leary, Lucas Peters, Alejandro Ramirez, Brett Rosen, Mara Savarese, Giovanni Silva, Jessica Tozzo, Samantha Weisman, Eliza Weiss, Elise Wein, Thomas Ford, Sarah Kenner, Brian Conigliaro, Steve Wexler, Dan Nosonowitz, Robbie Burell, Jon Leonard, Jeffrey Levy, Jeff Weigand, Girard Mohen