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November 14, 2004

He's making noise with Deaf West's 'Big River'

From: Boston Globe - Boston,MA,USA - Nov 14, 2004

Director Jeff Calhoun breaks new ground in musical revival incorporating ASL

By Maureen Dezell, Globe Staff | November 14, 2004

Four years ago, just as he was turning 40, Tony Award-winning choreographer/ director Jeff Calhoun was disheartened. The only job offers he was getting from producers were for uninspired revivals -- the shows that make up more and more of Broadway's stock in trade -- and he couldn't be less interested.

Then his old friend Bill O'Brien, producing director of Deaf West Theatre in California, proposed a revival of a different sort. O'Brien ''asked if I'd be interested in directing a musical -- any musical I wanted -- with the provision that at least half the cast had to be either deaf or hard of hearing," says Calhoun. ''I am actually ashamed today to say it, but I really thought he was kidding."

He wasn't, of course. Calhoun took on a Deaf West production of ''Oliver!," immersed himself in sign language, and, he says, ''fell in love with deaf theater and culture." In 2001, he went back to Deaf West to work with founding artistic director Ed Waterstreet on a revival of the 1985 musical ''Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which comes to the Wang Theatre this week for eight performances.

''Big River," which is believed to be the first full-fledged musical adapted, designed, and performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language, first transferred from Deaf West's small venue to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it played to local acclaim and then started getting national attention.

''When people hear 'deaf' or 'American sign language,' they think of someone standing at the side of the stage, gesturing and mouthing things," says Calhoun. ''That is not what is going on here."

Instead, this ''Big River" production is a hybrid art form that blends music, dance, song, speech, and signing. The musical is narrated by Mark Twain (Daniel Jenkins, who played the original Huck Finn on Broadway in 1985). Jenkins also vocalizes the role of Huck, which is otherwise performed by Tyrone Giordano, a deaf actor who signs the words and song lyrics. Michael McElroy, meanwhile, speaks, sings, and signs the role of Jim.

Audiences tend to find the mix of sign and spoken language somewhat disconcerting at first, critics and producers have said. Ultimately, though, the oddities become as much a part of ''Big River" as Julie Taymor's jungle beasts in ''The Lion King" or the puppet kids in ''Avenue Q."

''Watching it is a goosebump experience," says Calhoun. ''It's a once-in-a lifetime experience. People see it with what I call 'baby eyes.' "

''Big River" has been lauded by critics and applauded by crowds in Los Angeles, on Broadway last year, and during stops on its 38-city tour of the United States and Japan.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who wrote glowingly about nearly every aspect of ''Big River" during its two-month run at the American Airlines Theatre last year, particularly admired the musical's ''seamless" melding of two forms of storytelling. The extraordinary hush created during interludes when deaf actors and characters sign words and lyrics, unaccompanied, prompted the critic to quote Keats's line: ''Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter."

But while ''Big River" was heralded as a great feat, it lasted only two months on Broadway, says Waterstreet.

Today's Broadway audiences don't want to see anything original or challenging, says Calhoun, who won a 1991 Tony for his choreographic collaboration with Tommy Tune on ''The Will Rogers Follies" and directed and choreographed the Broadway revival of ''Grease" in 1994. ''I am old enough to remember summer stock, which was a middle-of-the-road or mediocre show based around a washed-up TV star who would sell tickets," he says. ''That's what Broadway has become."

Waterstreet, communicating through an ASL interpreter, says the company wanted to keep ''Big River" moving ''because this was the first time deaf people finally saw their language and poetry and music onstage."

Sure enough, demand for ''Big River" on the road has been far better than it was on Broadway, according to Wang Center president Josiah Spaulding. Which is why the Wang, Atlanta's Theatre of the Stars, and Dallas Summer Musicals, members of the Independent Presenters' Network, an organization that is attempting to produce and market independently owned show tours, put together an investment and producing agreement with Deaf West for the tour, which launched last spring.

The tour, which has already spawned a second company to meet public demand for the production, is being watched carefully in North American theater markets, where a few scrappy independents have recently lobbed challenges at Clear Channel Entertainment's overwhelming dominance of the field.

From Calhoun's vantage point, the tour is a gamble made good for the producers' alliance. ''A show like this tends to encourage people to do extraordinary things," he says over a cellphone from Joe Allen, a favorite New York hangout for actors and directors near the Plymouth Theatre, where Calhoun's original musical ''Brooklyn" opened last month.

The Wang, concerned that the extremely soft box office at theaters throughout Boston in September and October would last through the ''Big River" run, secured funds from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation and several anonymous donors to cut ticket prices to the show in half.

''That is absolutely unheard of in this business," Calhoun says of the Wang discount, which will allow the theater to sell its high-priced seats for $32.50 -- less than what it costs to see a weekend show at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Calhoun wants as many people as possible to see ''Big River," which he said ''has brought me three of the most blessed years of my professional life."

''It shows me -- and everyone else -- things we didn't know before," Calhoun continues. ''When I was young, I always wanted to do things that hadn't been done before. Then as I got older, I realized everything's been done before. Or so I thought -- until 'Big River.' "

Maureen Dezell can be reached at

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.