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July 9, 2004

Huck's tale retold

From: Houston Chronicle, TX - Jul 9, 2004

Free show sings, signs its way into audience's heart


Can a song soar in silence?

It can and does in the heart-stopping signature moment of Deaf West Theatre's groundbreaking Big River.

Late in the show, midway through a full company reprise of the inspirational Waitin' for the Light to Shine, the stage goes silent -- but the song continues, indeed swells in its power, as the entire cast renders the lyrics in American Sign Language.

It's the coup de théâtre that most showgoers will remember as the epitome of this unique production's impact.

Yet the new Big River -- with its cast blending hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing players -- finds new ways to make silence sing throughout.

The eternal challenge of musical theater is finding the ideal balance of song, dance and spoken word to tell a particular story. This revival of the Tony-winning 1985 musical version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn adds ASL to the mix, making every moment accessible to nonhearing showgoers.

There is no interpreter at the side of the stage. The characters sign the story themselves, making this component as important as William Hauptman's script and Roger Miller's score. This approach transforms the show into a synchronized ballet of singing and signing, speech, gesture and dance.

Developed in fall 2001 at Deaf West, a 66-seat theater in North Hollywood, the production went on to acclaim at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum in 2002, then on Broadway last summer. A recent Tony nominee for best musical revival, the production is launching an international tour with its Broadway leads still on board: Tyrone Giordano as Huck, Tony-nominated Michael McElroy as Jim and Daniel Jenkins as Twain.

Houston's Theatre Under The Stars is co-producing the tour and presenting it as TUTS' free summer offering at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where it opens Tuesday.

Directing and choreographing the new Big River, Jeff Calhoun has faced his greatest challenge and drawn the best notices of his career.

"It's a new experience for everyone involved," Calhoun says. "The style in which it developed was 100 percent trial and error."

Calhoun says the barrier-bursting treatment is especially well-suited to Twain's classic tale of outcast adolescent Huck and runaway slave Jim, who join forces as they raft down the Mississippi through a series of picaresque adventures.

"It's a story about two cultures coming together," he says. "To have hearing culture and deaf culture come together to tell the story heightens that element, without having to comment on it."

The combinations of sign language, speech and song vary with each character. Huck's Pap is played by two actors, deaf and hearing, always in tandem: One signs, the other speaks and sings. As Jim, however, McElroy handles the entire role -- dialogue, vocals and signing. Giordano, who is deaf, acts Huck in sign language, while Jenkins, who plays narrator Twain, also supplies Huck's voice in dialogue and song.

The "doubling" of characters is not unlike Julie Taymor's vision of The Lion King, in which puppet figures operate alongside the actors who manipulate them. Rather than confusing the viewer, the technique adds visual richness.

"The great challenge was keeping every moment equally geared for both hearing and deaf actors and audience," Calhoun says. "We didn't want anyone in the audience to have to look away from the action to see a line or lyric signed -- in effect, missing the show. The signing had to be central."

It also was crucial, Calhoun says, to get a "really superb translation" into ASL. The choices among various signing options color the meaning and flavor of a line -- for instance, one sign for "traveler" also carries the religious connotation of "pilgrim," while another does not.

Calhoun quickly discovered that the continuous signing by his cast affected all aspects of the show.

"It affects the actors' use of props, for one thing. (And) you can't have someone turn his back or look out a window. You have to keep the focus as intent as a laser beam."

The original Big River swept the 1985 Tony Awards (in an admittedly sparse season), winning seven, including best musical. Despite its long run of 2 1/2 years (1,005 performances) and a successful tour that played Houston in 1988, it was viewed by critics as a pleasant, workmanlike effort, short of classic status.

Its chief assets were the folksy songs by Miller -- the lone stage score from the country singer/songwriter famed for such 1960s hits as King of the Road and Dang Me -- and the basic strength of Twain's story, even in the simplified retelling by Hauptman.

Most critics have felt the revival's innovative use of signing adds expressiveness and distinction to the show, surpassing the original.

Big River never was long on dancing, and still isn't.

"But the whole show seems to dance now," Calhoun says. "The signing is the choreography. Even dialogue scenes are more lyrical because of the beauty of the signing."

Stepping out of the shadows

Big River has brought new prestige to Calhoun, who gained attention as a protégé of Tommy Tune. Calhoun was associate choreographer for Tune's The Will Rogers Follies, then directed the monumentally tacky 1994 revival of Grease that Tune "supervised." (It's hard to forgive them for that one.) He directed the concert show Tommy Tune Tonite! and the pre-Broadway tour of the ill-fated Tune vehicle Busker Alley, whose Broadway plans died when the star broke his foot on the tour's final stop.

Though he choreographed the hit 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, it was difficult for Calhoun to escape Tune's shadow until Big River.

He was surprised when Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet contacted him about the prospect of a musical that mixed deaf and hearing players.

"Ed, who is deaf, remembered being taken to musicals as a child by his hearing parents," Calhoun says. "He told me he'd always wanted to find a way to let deaf theatergoers experience the same joy his parents felt at those shows."

Twain appeared as a character in the original Big River -- but only briefly, at the start and close. Calhoun expanded his role as narrator (and voice of Huck), a choice that helps sutain story continuity.

The production's concept of a tale being told is reflected in Ray Klausen's settings: The players spring from giant cutout pages of Twain's text to tell it.

For Jenkins, who played Huck in the 1985 original, the role of Twain provides an opportunity to revisit a favorite show with a fresh perspective.

"I've had this funny feeling of connection (to the show) from the beginning," Jenkins says. That may be partly due to his lifelong love of Twain's writing. "Or maybe it's because I'd once been in this theater-circus kind of troupe that got an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant to do shows for underprivileged communities along the Mississippi."

Jenkins remembers Miller, who died in 1992, with fondness.

"He was a really sweet guy who worked really hard," Jenkins says. "He stretched himself to come up with the varied score for this show. I'll never forget the day he came in for the first time with the ballad Worlds Apart, my favorite song in the show. He knew exactly what was needed in the scene, and he kept it simple."

It was producer Rocco Landesman who decided Huckleberry Finn would be the perfect property for Miller's Broadway debut -- and kept after the songwriter until he agreed.

Landesman became one of the top Broadway producers of the 1990s, a key force behind such hits as The Secret Garden, Titanic, Tommy and the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Director Des McAnuff also scored his first hit with Big River; he went on to stage Tommy and How to Succeed.

"We were really the underdogs that season," Jenkins recalls. "A show with so many unknowns and no great expectations."

Jenkins has since scored lead roles in several high-profile Broadway productions, including Big and Wrong Mountain, and the role of Prior Walter in Angels in America.

Despite the new Big River's acclaim in Los Angeles and New York, commercial producers declined to mount a national tour. Like Nine and Assassins, the 2003 and 2004 Tony winners for best musical revival, it apparently wasn't considered sufficiently mass-market in its appeal.

So, as with the memorable new Flower Drum Song presented here earlier this year, TUTS and other nonprofit regional companies joined forces so that audiences outside New York could experience a worthwhile show. TUTS' partners here are Dallas Summer Musicals, Atlanta's Theater of the Stars and Boston's Wang Center.

"I saw the revival at the Roundabout Theatre in New York," says TUTS chief Frank Young, "and I thought it was one of the most artistically satisfying productions I've seen in recent years."

Highly anticipated show

Among deaf and hard-of-hearing Houstonians, interest in Big River is high, according to Jill Beebout, managing director of Illuminations Theatre With the Deaf. Illuminations supplies ASL interpretation for standard theater productions and occasionally produces its own events.

"Our phones started to ring as soon as TUTS announced a few months back that they'd be presenting the show," says Beebout, whose hearing is not impaired. "Given what we do, people thought we had something to do with the show."

Illuminations will supply ushers who are "savvy in sign language" for the performances at Miller.

"This will be one of the few times that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community -- especially the children -- can truly identify with characters," Beebout says. "They'll be seeing their language onstage."

Illuminations artistic director Susan Jackson, who is deaf, expressed her enthusiasm via e-mail:

"I am very excited and proud to have Houston feature a production that weaves its message through American Sign Language, spoken word, music and dance. I look forward to seeing the response of the audience, both hearing and deaf."

Houston is the second stop for the tour, which launched June 11 in San Francisco. It's booked for 16 cities, including Tokyo, through next June.

"Ever since we began work, this production has been blessed," Calhoun says. "It's one of those times when the stars have aligned. The funny thing is, no one does a show at Deaf West to make money. You do it as a labor of love. Yet this is the most successful thing I've done, and it's opening doors for me. It's the show I'm proudest of."

Calhoun is producing and directing Brooklyn, a new musical he describes as "an urban fairy tale about a troupe of street performers," which is headed for Broadway next season. But don't be surprised if he turns up as director again at Deaf West.

"My dream is to create a brand-new musical for them," he says.

Big River
When: 8:15 p.m. Tuesday through July 18
Where: Miller Outdoor Theatre, Hermann Park, 100 Concert Drive
Tickets: Free tickets for covered seating are available 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on the day of performance at the Miller box office; remaining tickets are given away one hour before curtain; 713-284-8352

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle