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July 14, 2004

Deaf West's 'Big River' flows smoothly

From: Houston Chronicle, TX - Jul 14, 2004


The ingenious revival of Big River that opened Tuesday evening at Miller Outdoor Theatre works wonders with the show by adding another dimension to its storytelling. That dimension is American Sign Language, skillfully interwoven throughout the show by the dedicated cast, which mingles deaf, hearing and hard-of-hearing players.

This innovative treatment reinvents the pleasant but largely uninspired 1985 musical version of Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn giving it new resonance, expressiveness and artistic validity.

Originated by Los Angeles' Deaf West Theatre and produced on Broadway last season, the Tony-nominated revival has taken to the road, presented here by tour co-producer Theatre Under The Stars.

William Hauptman's script remains a capable, streamlined, albeit oversimplified and somewhat preachy retelling of Twain's saga about ne'er-do-well adolescent Huck, runaway slave Jim and their adventures along the Mississippi.

Roger Miller's agreeable but seldom memorable songs exude folksy flavor, ranging from bluegrass to gospel. Yet they fall prey to a certain sameness. Too often, they offer incidental embellishment when they should grab the story and propel it forward. Some are completely irrelevant, i.e., When the Sun Goes Down in the South, for those scalawag con men the King and the Duke.

Still, the score boasts some affecting moments when it grabs the opportunities in Huck and Jim's friendship (the rousing Muddy Water and the gently touching Worlds Apart), or Huck's emotional growth and realization of the evils of slavery (Waitin' for the Light to Shine, Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go).

Director Jeff Calhoun capitalizes on the storytelling aspect, demonstrating that there are many ways to tell a tale through the mix of speech, singing and signing.

The variety with which the effect is achieved lends freshness and surprise. For some characters, such as Jim and Tom Sawyer, one actor speaks, sings and signs the role. For others, like Huck's Pap, two actors dressed identically appear in tandem, one signing, one speaking and singing.

The inspiration is to treat ASL not merely as utilitarian translation, but as a crucial element of the show's artistry. The sheer beauty of the signing enhances key scenes, as in Huck and Jim's duet Worlds Apart, in which their gestures add a rich visual poetry that enhances the impact of the score's loveliest song.

Then there is the extraordinary moment when Huck and the ensemble are singing and signing Waiting for the Light to Shine and the stage suddenly goes silent but the song continues through the company's heartfelt signing. This is a revelation, momentarily erasing the difference between hearing and nonhearing theatergoers.

Calhoun's fast-paced direction supplies lots of heart and scads of clever visual touches. With two actors playing Pap, when one drinks from his jug, it's the other who wipes his own mouth with his sleeve. Then there's the droll pantomime of multiple actors' hands representing a bothersome pack of yapping hounds.

Tyrone Giordano is inspired casting as Huck, exuding youthful spirit, earthy innocence and scapegrace charm. His portrayal demonstrates that theatrical signing is achieved with the entire person, for his face and body are as agile and expressive as his hands. He eloquently conveys Huck's crisis of conscience.

Daniel Jenkins (who played Huck in the 1985 original) here enacts an avuncular Twain; doubling as Huck's voice, he gives his lines and songs a piquant twang.

Re-creating his Tony-nominated Jim, Michael McElroy distinguishes his mythic role with a powerhouse voice and depths of wounded nobility and emotion.

Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine prove a scene-stealing duo as disreputable Pap; they return to comparably comic effect as the pretentious rogues the Duke and the King. Christopher J. Hanke makes an irrepressibly mischievous Tom Sawyer.

Melissa Van Der Schyff lends a Dolly Parton-ish zest to her ballad as Mary Jane, Huck's brief flirtation. Gwen Stewart imbues her gospel solos with rafter-rocking intensity as the slave mother whose daughter is being sold away; Christina Dunams is moving in her signed portrayal as the beleaguered daughter.

Theater is, after all, about communication. In Deaf West's unique revival, everyone onstage contributes to communicating the big heart of this Big River.


When: 8:15 nightly through Sunday.

Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park, 100 Concert Drive.

Tickets: Free tickets for covered seating available 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on the day of performance at the Miller box office; 713-284-8352.

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle