When the Family Theater Production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” pushes off the shore next week on a monthlong run at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, it’ll be led by two 24-year-olds who took entirely different journeys to the dinner-theater stage.
The musical — based on Mark Twain’s tale of race and class in America, set to music and lyrics by Roger Miller — tells the story of Huck and runaway slave Jim and the people they encounter on a raft on the Mississippi. Timed to coincide with February’s Black History Month — “Big River” is directed by John Fanelli, of Thornwood’s Lighthouse Youth Arts Center, where many of the cast’s young actors study.
Playing Huck is Anthony Malchar, of Yonkers, who comes to WBT from Westchester’s community-theater network, a veteran of productions from Croton Falls to Yorktown to Yonkers. When he was at Westchester Community College, he says, “I was in every show they did.”
The lanky Malchar has built an acting resumé “playing the young juvenile kids” — Jonnycq in “Zombie Prom,” Bobby in “Urinetown” with Little Radical Theatrics, and Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” at Yorktown Stage and ACT in Yonkers.
It’s a long run: 28 shows performed Wednesdays through Sundays for a month. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“In community theater, it’s usually one or two weekends, maybe three,” Malchar says. “I’m looking forward to that, as a way to prepare myself for something Off-Broadway, or a tour.”
The actor playing Jim has taken a more circuitous route to the stage, one with more twists and turns than the mighty Mississippi.
He was born Gary Fritzroy Francis Jr., but that’s not who he is now.
Now, he’s FaTye — pronounced “fuh-TIE” — whose early years were spent in the New York City foster-care system, moving from group home to group home. He was 12 when he entered the foster system and 14 when he left.
Along the way, Gary gave way to FaTye, a one-name-only made-up monicker that captured the kind of kid he was, a kid who sang “comfort songs” aloud to guide him, songs like Alan Menken’s “I Can Go the Distance,” from the movie “Hercules,” which has the lyric:
“I’ll be there someday. I can go the distance.
I will find my way, If I can be strong.
I know every mile Will be worth my while
When I go the distance I’ll be right where I belong.”
He knew foster care wasn’t where he belonged.
“I chose to leave, because I was the smallest kid there,” he says. “Bullying is something that was going on non-stop. I was the youngest one. Being the runt, it tends to happen a lot,” he says. “I chose to leave on my own, which, in the state of New York, is illegal. A 14-year-old can’t legally live on his own in New York.”
The man who now plays a runaway was once a runaway. He moved into the abandoned basement of the Bronx building where his mother had once lived. (She had since moved to Pennsylvania.)
In a narrative mirroring a scene in “Big River” — when two characters try to cheat Huck and Jim — FaTye says he then moved to the Fordham section of the Bronx “to be with some people who said they’d help me, but their idea of help wasn’t the most positive things.”
“I was swindled and conned into doing anything known to man, to survive,” he says. “They’d tell me: ‘This is what you have to do to eat tonight, to sleep tonight.’
“And it wasn’t always legal. It was like a Jean Valjean thing,” he says, invoking the character from “Les Miserables” who goes to jail for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children.
“I can only imagine how many stairwells I slept in,” he says. “But all along, I knew I didn’t belong there, living on the streets.”
The judge handling his foster-care case agreed. After FaTye missed more than a year of school, the judge sent him to Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, a residential treatment campus for at-risk youth, to get his life back on track.
“That is where it all changed,” he says. “It’s where my life took a leap of faith, where I was believed in and given a lot of opportunities I had never been given before.”
It was there — at the campus’ Greenburgh 11 High School — that he was cast in his first musical, a freshman cast in the leading role of Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls.”
It’s where he met Sandra Mallah, of Hastings,his school’s superintendent, who was so taken with his talent that she helped him earn a scholarship to Broadway Training Center in Hastings and to pursue other training.
Along the way, their friendship deepened. She is now his godmother, and she and her husband, Sheldon, are co-producing “Big River.”
“I call her ‘Mennie,’ a mix of mother and mentor,” FaTye says.
Looking back on his foster-care journey, the actor is reflective, even grateful.
“I don’t recommend it for anyone, or for anyone’s child,” he says. “But I am who I am today because of it.”
Who he is today is a 24-year-old actor-singer-dancer dynamo who has studied at NYU’s prestigious CAP-21 program and at the American Musical Dramatic Academy, a man whose enthusiasm could give you a tan.
Who he plays in “Big River” is a man running for his life, opposite Huck, a happy-go-lucky character who is out on the river on a lark.
“Huck is more for the adventure of it all, the thrill of it all,” says Malchar, the man who plays him. “It’s a good-scary feeling, like hoping to get caught maybe.”
If Jim gets caught, the stakes are life-and-death.
Both point to different moments as favorites.
For Malchar, it’s the trio between Huck, Mary Jane and Jim, “Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go.”
“It’s a really tender moment,” Malchar says. “Huck has this crush on this girl and he can’t be with her. He’s made a commitment to Jim. He can’t stay, but she wants him to. He knows what he has to do.”
For FaTye, the parallels between character and autobiography are at times unrelenting. The song “Free at Last,” he says, “is almost like re-enacting thoughts I had when I was 14.”
“When I get to the line ‘Thank God, Almighty, I’ll be free at last,’ it still hits me,” he says, his voice catching.