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July 2, 2004

Huck Finn elegant, special with voice and sign

From: Morgan Hill Times, CA - Jul 2, 2004

By Camille Bounds

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Mark Twain

That is how Mark Twain began his classic "Huckleberry Finn". A tale of freedom and integrity, that took Twain seven years to complete. This is also how "Big River" begins keeping the original story intact, to bring all the characters to life enriching them with words and music and sign language that if possible, makes what was considered the most important American novel of the nineteenth century even better. "Big River" opened on Broadway in 1985 and walked off with seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.

That is where the original production ends and a new glorious staging of this delightful story changes into a graceful presentation that includes sign language.

The Deaf West Theatre production of "Big River" glides along the Mississippi in 1840, with every word signed that is said or sung. It is so moving to watch and hear the perfectly synchronized signed words and music float through the theater in a seamless outpouring of talent of the deaf and hearing actors.

What could go down one of those very special moments in theatre comes near the end of the second act when all sound stops in the spiritual, "Waitin' for the Light to Shine", and the players continue to sign the song. The hearing audience mentally sings along with a warm feeling of accomplishment and wonder at their own ability to understand something so beautifully presented and be welcomed into the world of the deaf for just a few seconds in time. A chill, a tear or an emotional gulp is evident in all the hearing watchers in the theatre and you realize you are a part a the magic that makes live theatre so unique.

Huck is played by Tyrone Giordano, who is deaf and signs while actor Daniel Jenkins who plays Mark Twain sings and voices his own and Huck's voice. Giordano has just the right mix of imp, innocence, and a simple sensitivity to beautifully underplay the part with loving authority. He is easy to watch as he signs, to carry the story to the audience with the advantage of being a really believable, amiable fellow. Jenkins is admirable and believable as Twain and Huck and is in just about every scene. They are two of the eighteen deaf and hearing actors that bring the story to life.

Jim the runaway slave is superbly portrayed by Michael McElroy. His voice is rich and meaningful and he is a fine, controlled actor. This part could turn into a caricature but he carries it off with dignity and grace.

Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine, play Pap Finn, (one signs and one speaks and sings), they play off each other with a balance and timing that is hilarious and menacing as they gleefully portray the most, despicable, sots possible. Their "Guv'ment" number shows their talent and the genius of Roger Miller's words and humor.

Combine this with fine tuned direction and choreography, by Jeff Calhoun who smoothly joins signing, speaking and singing to a fine art. A superb, solid cast, a marvelous orchestra, precise sound, lighting and sets with a raft that takes the audience down the Mississippi for an memorable ride of joy and adventure with Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim.

Big River is more that a play, its an experience that takes a time just before the Civil War when the south was struggling with abolitionists. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he stated,

"All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. It's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

By all means do yourself a favor and go and see "Big River". The trip down the Mississippi is an enjoyable, unforgettable ride and an experience you will not soon forget.

© 2004 Morgan Hill Times