When he got involved in broadcasting, Florida-born Christopher Key worked hard to get rid of Southern accent.
But when he was finally cast as his first literary hero, Mark Twain, he was more than happy to revive the verbal twangs and lazy cadences that mark one as a Southerner.
Starting this weekend, Bellingham audiences will be able to see Key channel his icon at viewings of Mark Twain in Fairhaven: A Musical Tall Tale at the Firehouse Performing Arts Center.
The play, which was written by local psychologist and historian Joseph Lenz, was first produced at the Bellingham Theatre guild in 2002. Key auditioned for the title role at that point, but his singing voice was needed in another role and so he had to play the waiting game.
Ten years later, Key—who’s also co-directing the play this time around—is more than ready to tackle bringing the mustachioed author and humorist responsible for such masterpieces as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to life.
When asked what he does to get into character to play the complex man, Key says he conjures images of the wide river he grew up on in southern Florida.
“That always puts me in the right frame of mind,” he says. “I also think of all I’ve read from the complete set of Twain’s works, signed by the author, that my grandfather passed down to me.”
Key notes, however, that although he’s taking the role seriously, audiences should be aware that the phrase “tall tale” is included in the title of Lenz’s play. What that means is that although some of what those coming to watch the show will see is based on true-life events—such as the fact that Twain really did visit Fairhaven in 1895, at a time when he was struggling to revive himself financially—most of the play is a product of the author’s imagination.
“The whole play is a tall tale,” Key says. He also points out that Fairhaven was “in a severe economic slump due to the collapse of coal mining, timber and the decision of the railroad to go elsewhere. That, in fact, is what drives the plot.”
Lest you think this means you’re in for a morose take on an ailing city and a disillusioned author, think again. Key promises both “serious belly laughs” and “a head full of some of the best songs ever written.”
The fact that Mark Twain in Fairhaven is actually going to be performed in Fairhaven for the first time is simply icing on the theatrical cake.
“It was obviously meant to be performed in Fairhaven, but it wasn’t until Chuck Robinson of Village Books saw the production I directed at the Pioneer Museum in Lynden that momentum began to build,” Key says. “The presence of the Firehouse Performing Arts Center helped make it finally come together.”
Key says he’d love to see the Mark Twain in Fairhaven become a regular summer tourist attraction in the historic district, but hopes, at the very least, those who show up to watch the musical learn more about the man behind the play.
“I do my best to honor him with my portrayal,” Key says. “But the best thing is helping raise awareness of this American icon. I have heard from many people who have either been introduced to Twain through this show, or reminded of his stature, and that’s immensely gratifying.”
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