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March 24, 2005

Singing and signing in 'Big River'

From: Baltimore Sun - USA - Mar 24, 2005

Deaf West's production opens at Ford's

By Kim Hart
Sun Staff

March 24, 2005

When Michael McElroy auditioned for the role of Jim in Deaf West Theatre's production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he thought he'd be using American Sign Language only during the songs. He soon realized he would be signing -- as well as reciting -- his many lines. At that point, McElroy, who had never before used sign language, began to panic.

For the next week, he entered "sign boot camp," spending at least three hours a day with an interpreter to learn the signs for every word in the script.

"I still don't know how I did it," said McElroy, who is now almost fluent in ASL and last year received a Tony nomination for his role in the play's extended run on Broadway. "When you feel the magic and how special an experience is, you just learn it."

Four years after the innovative musical's inception by Deaf West Theatre -- a Hollywood-based professional sign language theater specializing in creating cultural programs for the deaf and hard of hearing -- Big River has come to Ford's Theatre in Washington. Nine of the 23 cast members are deaf or hard of hearing, and the actors synchronize voice and song with sign language gestures to perform for an audience of all hearing capabilities.

A musical for the deaf may be difficult to envision. Speaking actors both sign and speak their lines, and deaf actors sign and gesture while another actor provides the voice for the role. Coordinating the parts can be a challenge, especially for actors who are signing to music they may not be able to hear.

But the performance allows the hard-of-hearing members of the audience to see a story unfold in their own language and "melts away barriers for the hearing audience who get engaged with a play they didn't realize could be engaging," said Bill O'Brien, Deaf West managing director and producer.

"It sounds complicated, but you really just fall into it," said O'Brien, who plays Mark Twain and provides the voice of Huck. "The play is actually more clearly communicated with the combination of nonverbal with verbal communication."

Christopher Corrigan, an 18-year-old freshman at Gallaudet University, portrays Huck and relies on gestures and facial expressions to convey emotion. He saw the production on Broadway two years ago and vowed to someday be part of it. For him, the musical's greatest goal is to reveal the value in merging the two cultures to promote mutual understanding.

"Practically half the cast had never met a deaf person before working on this show," Corrigan said through an interpreter. "What's important is that both forms of the language are equal in their beauty and theatrical expression."

The themes of Big River -- adapted from Mark Twain's classic novel -- of breaking through stereotypes and embracing commonalities rather than differences make the story an appropriate choice for this type of production.

"The thing that happens onstage between Huck and Jim is the same that happens between the actors and the audience," McElroy said. "This is really what theater is all about. It educates, changes your perspective so that you're somehow different when you leave."

Deaf West Theatre's production of "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" runs at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W, Washington, through May 1. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Noon matinees will show March 31 and April 7, 13, 20, 21, 27, 28. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fords

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