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June 17, 2004

'Big River' fabulous to hear and see

From: Alameda Times-Star - Alameda,CA,USA - Jun 17, 2004


SURPRISES abound in the Deaf West Theatre production of "Big River," a musical version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The most amazing thing about the show might be the window it opens into another world -- a world where the lyrics of a song become visible and where words themselves become a captivating, literate dance. Created for deaf and hearing audiences alike, this "Big River," which opened Monday at San Francisco's Curran Theatre under the auspices of the Best of Broadway series, combines American Sign Language, words and music in a way you may not know you want to see. But you do want to see it. As musicals go, the nearly 20-year-old "Big River" is a pleasant retelling of Twain's novel. With a score written by "King of the Road" twanger Roger Miller and a streamlined book by William Hauptman, the show doesn't shy away from 19th-century racism in the American South. As in the novel, the "n-word" is used frequently in reference to slaves.

Rich experience

Enjoyable as it is, "Big River" is not a great musical. But the way director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun has reconceived it for a cast of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, the show becomes an incredibly rich experience.

The story is still the same: teenager Huck Finn fakes his own death and runs away. He sails down the Mississippi River with escaped slave Jim, who wants to move north and earn enough money to buy back his wife and children.

Every word of "Big River" is spoken (or sung) as well as signed, but Calhoun does this in such an ingenious way that by show's end, the idea of seeing a show without sign language involved seems somehow incomplete.

Twain's "Huck Finn" is a story of divisions -- black and white, free and enslaved, so-called classy and so-called trashy -- and this version of the story adds a new division: hearing and deaf.

The central character of Huck is played by ultra-charming Tyrone Giordano, a deaf actor who signs his performance while Daniel Jenkins, who also plays narrator Twain, voices and sings the role of Huck. It's a sweet irony that Jenkins originated the role of Huck on Broadway in 1985.

As the escaped slave Jim, Michael McElroy signs and voices everything himself, as does Christopher J. Hanke as a manic Tom Sawyer.

Acting in pairs

For some other characters, like Miss Watson (Deanne Bray), Huck's prim guardian, Calhoun has a deaf actor signing the role center stage while the voice actor (Melissa van der Schyff as Miss Watson's voice) stands unobtrusively on the sidelines.

And then there's Pap Finn, Huck's no-good drunk of a father, whom Calhoun envisions as a sort of split personality in the form of adept comic duo Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine. Both play Pap in what amounts to a singular funhouse mirror performance. In fact, the first time we see the two actors together, Pap is looking in a mirror. Then the reflection steps out of the mirror and the performance becomes a two-headed hydra of parental torment.

Kotsur and Devine are great together. When one Pap takes a swig of moonshine, the other Pap wipes his mouth, and they turn a mediocre song, "Guv'ment," into a showstopper.

Other such ingenious touches occur throughout the 21/2-hour show, but the most thrilling is in the Act 2 reprise of Huck's "Waitin' for the Light to Shine."

Music director Steven Landau and his crack country-fried six-piece ensemble are cranking away from atop their onstage perch while most of the cast is assembled below for the song's big choral finish.

Then all the music and voices go silent.

But the "singing" continues as the actors sign, "I have lived in the darkness for so long, I'm waitin' for the light to shine."

It's a chilling moment of amazing power and beauty.

This "Big River" benefits greatly from Calhoun's storybook theater approach. Using Twain as a narrator sharpens the tone of the piece, and Ray Klausen's set carries the idea even further as giant pages of Twain's novel flip and fold into locations as varied as Injun Joe's Cave or a fancy parlor in an Arkansas home.

As efficient and lovely as the production is -- lights by Michael Gilliam, costumes by David R. Zyla -- the magic is in the seamless blending of two languages to tell a multilayered story.

When Huck and Jim are floating down the Mississippi on their raft singing "River in the Rain" or addressing their friendship in the ballad "Worlds Apart," simple movement and melody become the most beautiful song you've ever seen.

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