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December 4, 2004

Deaf West's 'Big River' Flows Smoothly

From: Broadway World, NY - Dec 4, 2004

by Pati Buehler

The Deaf West Theatre Production of Big River takes bold and inventive steps to breathe life into an American classic. This innovative treatment includes deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors performing each role in a synchronized fashion. Spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL) are interwoven with music, dance and storytelling techniques that create a unique and groundbreaking theatrical experience.

With music by Roger Miller, Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn comes to life again with heartwarming charm. The variety with which the effect is achieved lends an element of freshness and surprise as some of the characters, such as Jim & Tom Sawyer are both sung and signed by the actors.

The role of Huck, who is a deaf actor who signs, finds his voice from none other than Mark Twain himself, who doubles as the show's narrator as well as plays several instruments- an amazing feat of multi-tasking.

While other roles namely Huck's Pap utilizes two actors dressed identically and appear in tandem, one signing, one singing, creating a whimsical take on this unsavory character. It is this unique creativity and well executed style that captures the audience.

Miller's score is a nice mix of country and gospel, but surely is not as memorable or glorious as one might expect from a legendary songwriter. Tyrone Giordano is well cast as a youthful, spirited young Huck. Re-creating his Tony-nominated Jim, Michael McElroy captures the show with a powerhouse voice and deep wounds of nobility and emotion. Daniel Jenkins (who played Huck in the original 1985 Broadway production) is nothing short of dazzling as he delivers his lines and songs with charm and twang.

Others in the large cast are fairly lost and lack any depth of character with the exception of Gwen Stewart playing Alice the slave mother who delivers roof shaking gospel solos that posses a wonderful rousing spirit.

Jeff Calhoun's fast paced direction provides lots of heart and visual touches, especially with his Pap characters that pantomime each other with much comic relief as well as the array of deaf actors whose many hands mimic the antics and sounds of a bothersome pack of yapping hounds. Not to go unnoticed are the simple yet clever sets by Ray Klausen, which are giant pages of Twain's book which opens and closes, and through which the actors and action flows smoothly.

While the score has some special quiet moments that bond the friendship between Huck and Jim such as " River in the Rain" and "Worlds Apart", the bigger ensemble numbers " Waiting for The Light To Shine" and "How Blest We Are" are not as powerful as one would anticipate. The show seems to drag in spots and occasionally the signing and singing gets a bit tedious to endure, but it's with the appreciation of the creativity surrounding these special circumstances that make this a powerful experience.

Big River played at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia from November 23-28. For upcoming events call 1.215.893.1999 or visit

Known to her theater pals as Pati B, she's been involved in various aspects of theater for about 20 years; from hosting large groups to Broadway, to theater charities, to writing reviews and interviews for the past 3 years. Covering many major shows and events has allowed her to see " Alot of talent in a lot of venues." She now brings that experience to Pati also runs PB Entertainment, Inc. a independent agency that matches talent with venues, "placing great people in great places."