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June 16, 2004

'Big River' full of surging songs, poetic sign language

From: San Francisco Chronicle - San Francisco,CA,USA - Jun 16, 2004

- Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Big River: Musical adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Directed by Jeff Calhoun.(Through July 10. Deaf West Theatre at Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Two hours, 35 minutes. Tickets $30-$85. Call (415) 512-7770, TTY line (877) 474-4833 or visit

There are no breakout dance numbers in the musical that opened Monday at the Curran Theatre, but every word -- every lyric sung and every phrase spoken -- dances. The Deaf West Theatre production of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is beautifully sung and well spoken, but it's more remarkable for how it makes words look than sound, let alone what's being said.

Director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun's revival of the 1985 Roger Miller musical -- based, obviously, on Mark Twain's great American novel -- is a triumphant application of American Sign Language to the stage vocabulary of musical theater. A large cast of deaf and hearing actors speaks (or sings) and signs every word simultaneously, sometimes with speaking and signing actors playing the same role, in a manner that delights the senses, deepens the textures and adds new dimensions to the text and music.

Calhoun's "River" opened two years ago at Deaf West, a pioneer in such spoken-signed stagings, in North Hollywood. It was reshaped some when it moved up to the Mark Taper Forum and again when it went to New York's Roundabout Theatre (both of which are still co-presenters) and Broadway last year. The Best of Broadway presentation at the Curran is the start of the national tour.

The thorough integration of aural and visual languages pays expected and unexpected dividends -- not least in Calhoun and associate director- choreographer Coy Middlebrook's stunning use of entire choruses of complex synchronized signing and singing. The effect achieves a resonant climax in a second act reprise of Miller's anthemic hymn "Waitin' for the Light to Shine," when all sound ceases from musical director Steven Landau's sharp onstage country band and the singers -- and the music continues in eloquent waves of silence.

Book adaptor William Hauptman's somewhat tired device of using Mark Twain as a narrator takes on new resonance as well. Daniel Jenkins is not only a smooth, casually comic Twain, but his versatile and lovely voice doubles to speaking and singing for Tyrone Giordano's Huck Finn -- just as Twain speaks through his narrator Huck in the novel. And just as in the book, Jenkins' expressive voice and Giordano's eloquent sign-acting blend so seamlessly you forget the bifurcation and seem to hear and understand every gesture.

Ray Klausen's set plays off the literary device, framing the action in large, sepia-toned, illustrated pages from the first edition -- pages that open up to become the homes, cave, island, raft and shacks of the story, beautifully lit by Michael Gilliam. The colorful hoop skirts, tattered buckskins and checkered rural finery and buffoonery of David Zyla's costumes complete the scene.

Calhoun and the actors make wonderful use of the double-language device at every turn, from the adventure-story climax way that Christopher Hanke's fantasy-besotted Tom Sawyer punches the air with the sign for "always" to Giordano's Huck and Michael McElroy's Jim's hands playing off each other to signify the celestial delights of a Mississippi River sky.

Best of all is the doubling of silent Troy Kotsur and speaking Erick Devine as Huck's mean, drunken, derelict Pap. Their mirror scene is hilarious enough, but when they barrel into Miller's brilliant drunken know-nothing rant, "(Dadgum dadgum dadgum) Guv'ment" each wiping his ratty beard with a tattered buckskin sleeve whenever the other swigs from a big jug, Devine and Kotsur bring down the house.

The constant interplay of signs and voice adds another dimension to Twain's still urgent tale of a boy responding to his heart's realization of human dignity across the racial divide -- a white Southerner helping a slave escape at the cost, he believes, of social ostracism and religious perdition. The broadening of the message to include other prejudices is brought home vividly in McElroy's heart-wrenching account of how Jim discovered that his little daughter had become deaf.

Still, there's only so much Deaf West can do to expand and elevate this less than classic musical. Hauptman's book is a pretty thin version of Twain's rich tale. He borrows some good lines from the master -- most of the best dialogue in the show -- and draws a sharp focus on Huck's moral dilemma in believing that he'll go to hell for helping Jim. But he does so at the expense of neglecting the book's broad canvas and making it sound preachy.

Few of Miller's songs match the infectious originality of "Guv'ment." His songs for the comic rapscallions, the King (Devine) and the Duke (Kotsur, with the voice of James Judy), are particularly disappointing -- music hall routines without wit that fall pretty flat no matter how much expert energy Kotsur and Devine pour into them. Most of the score is dominated by run-of-the- mill country ballads and hymns.

The cast transcends the material on many occasions. McElroy, who anchors the production with his solid presence and soul-stirring voice, sells the pleasant "Muddy Water," sentimental "Worlds Apart" and rousing "Free at Last" through sheer vocal prowess. Melissa Van Der Schyff warbles with classic country perfection. The astonishing Gwen Stewart fills a slave song, "The Crossing," with spiritual intensity and carries "How Blest We Are" to magnificent gospel heights.

The only things keeping this "River" from being an absolute triumph are the limitations of its book and score. And Calhoun and the company succeed pretty often in overflowing those banks.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle