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Theater season sets sail

Terence Kelley stars as Jim in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” (Kathy Plonka)
Terence Kelley stars as Jim in the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre production of “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” (Kathy Plonka)

Tony-winning ‘Big River’ launches strong summer lineup for CdA company

Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre kicks off its season Thursday with a production of “Big River.” Here are four things to know about CST this year.

1. The first two plays are the most technically challenging to mount.

“Big River” is an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and as such is mostly set on a raft floating down the Mississippi River. CST purchased the set from Village Theater in Seattle, said CST’s artistic director Roger Welch. “The raft moves on its own around the set. It’s motorized,” he said. “It’s a beautiful set.”

“Mary Poppins,” of course, features plenty of feats of theatercraft, with flying and other magic tricks. More difficult is the scene where Bert the chimneysweep dances on the ceiling. Literally. Welch called it one of the most difficult dance scenes he’s ever seen.

2. There are some major Broadway pedigrees here. The shows have a combined 25 Tony nominations and nine wins – eight for “Big River” and one for “Mary Poppins.” Actors who have previously stepped into these roles include Ron Richardson and Rene Auberjonois (“Big River”), Gavin Lee and Rebecca Luker (“Mary Poppins”), Scott Bakula and Alison Fraser (“Romance/Romance”) and Allison Janney and Marc Kudisch (“9 to 5”).

And in the “straight from Broadway” category, we have Rommy Sandhu, dance captain and understudy for the “Mary Poppins” production that closed in March. He’s agreed to co-direct and choreograph the CST production.

“It’s been an amazing experience with him because he knows the show backwards and forward and it’s a very complicated show,” Welch said. “To have him come straight from Broadway to here is pretty much our mission statement, ‘Broadway in your own backyard.’ ”

Oh, and he’s bringing with him the original chimney brooms the sweeps used on Broadway – props he saved from the dustbin when the show closed.

3. There are some big names behind the music, too. The music for “Big River” is by Roger Miller, who wrote “King of the Road.” It’s blues, it’s gospel, “It’s not necessarily country, but more like bluegrass,” Welch said. “It’s really great music.”

Dolly Parton, who starred in the 1980 movie and got an Oscar nomination for her hit title song, wrote all new music for “9 to 5.”

“Mary Poppins” features music by Richard and Robert Sherman from the classic Disney movie, as well as new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

The book, by the way, was written by Julian Fellowes, who has gotten a bit of attention lately for this PBS series he did called “Downton Abbey.”

4. “Romance/ Romance” is the play you’re least likely to have seen or heard of. It’s two one-act plays, the first based on “The Little Comedy” by Arthur Schnitzler, the second on the play “Pain de Menage” by Jules Renard.

In Act I, two European aristocrats at the turn of 20th century, bored with their lives, independently decide to pose as artists. When they fall in love, they are faced with having to reveal the truth.

Act II centers on the same four characters spending the summer in the Hamptons exploring the boundaries of friendship.

“Romance/Romance” didn’t have a lot of big names behind it. Barry Harman, a TV writer who wrote for “The Carol Burnett Show,” directed the show on Broadway and wrote the lyrics. Keith Herrmann, who worked on “Cats” and wrote music for “Onward Victoria,” wrote the music.

“They called it the little musical that could because it got great accolades,” Welch said.

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