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November 23, 2004

Singing and signing

From: Philadelphia Inquirer - Philadelphia,PA,USA - Nov 23, 2004

"Big River" is another odds-beating musical triumph for Deaf West Theatre.

By Douglas J. Keating

Inquirer Theater Critic

Ed Waterstreet, the deaf founder and artistic director of the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, had already had success with productions that mixed hearing and deaf actors signing and speaking, so presenting a musical the same way seemed the next logical step in his theater's development.

It didn't sound like that great of an idea to Broadway director Jeff Calhoun. In fact, when Deaf West's managing director asked Calhoun to consider creating a similar production of Oliver!, the proposal seemed so bizarre that, Calhoun recalled, "I thought he was drunk."

Nevertheless, he was persuaded to take on the task, and when Oliver! was well-received by critics and had a sold-out run in the 99-seat Deaf West theater, Calhoun agreed to do a second musical revival. Big River became so big with audiences that it transferred to the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles' prime regional theater, and last year jumped to Broadway, where a brief Roundabout Theatre-sponsored engagement won the show further critical acclaim, a Tony Award nomination for best revival of a musical, and a special Tony Award citation for excellence for the cast. In June Big River began a 37-city tour that brings it to the Academy of Music tonight through next Sunday.

Big River has been hailed for combining speaking, singing and signing into what becomes a sort of new language, but finding that seamless means of expression was no easy task for Calhoun and the others who worked on the production. Even getting actors to audition for the production proved difficult. "Both hearing and deaf actors were reluctant to get involved in a cast that mixed them," Calhoun recalled in a phone conversation from New York, where his production of the new musical Brooklyn recently opened on Broadway.

Once actors were found, Calhoun continued, many problems arose from using a script and songs that had been written to be presented by hearing, speaking actors. "Oliver has a plate in his hands [when he famously asks for more]. How does he sign and hold a plate?" Calhoun asked. "In one scene, there was a knock on the door, but you can't have that because deaf actors can't hear it.

"It was mind-boggling, and we decided that the only way to approach it was to just forge ahead, and we solved each problem as it occurred. I wish I could say it was one brilliant stroke that I had, but it just evolved as we went along to become this beautiful new art."

In Big River - an adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by William Hauptman, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller - Calhoun refined and enhanced the presentation method developed in Oliver! One innovation frequently cited by reviewers is having Huck Finn's no-good, drunken father played by two identically dressed actors, one signing and one talking as they shadow each another around the stage.

Daniel Jenkins, who had the part of Huck in the original Broadway production 20 years ago, will play Mark Twain, who narrates the show and here provides the voice for the deaf Tyrone Giordano, who signs and plays Huck.

Jenkins also had to learn his part in American Sign Language (ASL). That was not as straightforward as it might appear, requiring a considerable amount of consultation with ASL experts and cast members proficient in using it, Jenkins said by phone from his New York home during a break in the tour.

"How do you present Twain's dry, ironic humor in sign language?" Jenkins asked. "It's very difficult, because you don't just use your hands in sign language, you use your face and your body."

The singing, of course, is also signed, and the group songs are signed by the entire cast. Getting the non-hearing actors to coordinate their signing with the vocalizing and signing of the hearing actors was particularly challenging, Calhoun said. "There have to be visual cues provided for them every couple of seconds that hopefully the audience is never aware of," he explained.

"It's a well-oiled machine. The whole evening seems to be a dance. In a regular musical, the dance stops when the music stops, but here, with the movement of signing and the body movement of the performers, the dance never stops."

Waterstreet, who founded Deaf West in 1991, visited Philadelphia in August for a Kimmel Center-sponsored session to publicize the coming of Big River to the Academy. Speaking from the Perelman Theatre stage in sign language accompanied by a spoken translation, he related how he had gone to Los Angeles, after a 25-year career with the Connecticut-based National Theatre of the Deaf, hoping to work as a movie and television actor, but found few opportunities for a nonspeaking, signing performer. He also missed theater, and after learning that the nation's second-largest metropolitan area had no theater for the deaf, he decided to start one.

"What I wanted was theater where only deaf actors would act on stage. A voice-over would be done in a booth and the hearing people in the audience would have to have an infrared receiving device to hear it. I was very strongly into advancing deaf culture. I wanted to ignore hearing people as much as possible," he explained.

Nevertheless, Waterstreet continued, he soon found that hearing people were "fascinated by sign language" and made up about 95 percent his audience. However, they also let him know they would prefer to hear actors talking from the stage.

To do that without diminishing the importance of the deaf performers and the signing, Waterstreet struck on the idea of distributing roles among speaking and signing actors. His big success was a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the rough and brutal Stanley Kowalski and his wife, Stella, were deaf, while Blanche, the manipulative sister-in-law who comes to stay with them, spoke and signed.

Waterstreet believes the clash between the seemingly refined Blanche and the crude Stanley was amplified by the visible contrast between the communicative approaches of the deaf and hearing actors. Similarly, in Big River, he noted, having a Huck who is deaf and signing and his river-raft companion, the slave Jim, as hearing and speaking intensifies the white boy-black man relationship at the heart of the novel and the musical.

Jenkins sees the mixing of signing and speaking actors as a distinct benefit for both the hearing-impaired and hearing members of the audience.

"The non-hearing audience gets something they've never had before. The sign language is center stage. It's not off to the side where they have to keep wagging their heads back and forth between the actor and the person signing," he said, while the hearing - the vast majority of the audience - "are getting two shows at once."

Sign language, Jenkins explained, "is closely connected to emotion. A lot of it can be understood without knowing specifically what the signs mean, so the hearing audience is seeing and absorbing that expression as well as getting to hear the words." Contact theater critic Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or Read his recent work at

"Big River" opens tonight and runs through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $25-$75. Information: 215-893-1999 or

© 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.