For eight performances only, Deaf West Theatre's production of "Big River" is playing at the beautifully refurbished Academy of Music. This production was originally produced by Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, California and subsequently produced by the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in California and on Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York.
The original Broadway production opened on April 25, 1985 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre and was the winner of seven Tony awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. With music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman it is a musical retelling of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". Huck Finn, an adolescent ne'er-do- well escaping from his drunken father, meets up with Jim, a runaway slave. Their journey down the Mississippi on a raft is a tale of adventure and self-discovery of a young man in the 1840's.
What makes Deaf West's version of "Big River" so unique is director, Jeff Calhoun's ingenious interweaving of the English spoken word, American Sign Language (ASL), music, dance, song and storytelling. A talented cast of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, (sometimes playing the same role) meld together to create a third language, if you will. As they say, you have to see it to believe it.
The brilliance of this production lies in the fact that the signing and doubling of roles does not detract from the piece, but rather adds to the whole mis en scene, giving it another dimension of reality. The signing can be graceful and elegant or frenetic and entreating -- the body language a poetic extension of the text, adding to the beauty or urgency of the scene. One stunning moment occurs during the song, "Waitin' for the Light to Shine" where the chorus is singing and signing in unison as the music builds to a climax. Abruptly, the music stops and the cast goes on signing in silence. And suddenly the entire hearing audience is experiencing what the deaf audience has been experiencing all night. And judging by the amount of sniffing, coughing and sniveling going on around me, it's safe to say that I wasn't the only one moved by this symbolic gesture.
Another element that has made this reinvented revival so successful is the musical direction and special musical arrangements by Steven Landau. Many years ago I saw the original version of this show and though I liked the book very much I felt the music was dull, listless and eventually tedious (and I am a Roger Miller fan!). Well, Mr. Landau has changed all that. He has stepped up the tempos and put some soul into the gospel numbers and it sounds like a completely new score. It's got everything a Broadway musical should have -- energy, urgency, and pizzazz.
Tyrone Giordano has been with Big River from its first Deaf West Theatre Production in North Hollywood, in the role of Huck Finn. Using his entire body to be expressive, he is a deaf actor who signs his dialogue and lyrics while Daniel Jenkins speaks and sings for him. Mr. Giordano is boyishly charismatic and very appealing as the young Huck . Mr. Jenkins, who also plays an admirable Mark Twain, the Narrator, is the mouthpiece for Huck and his voice. At times accompanying on the guitar and banjo, the multi-talented Mr. Jenkins is a high tenor with a distinctive country sound. Michael McElroy is simply superb as Jim. His acting is rooted in reality and his voice in the sweetest of heavens. Gwen Stewart stops the show with her rendition of "How Blest We Are" and Erick Devine and Troy Kotsur are very funny as the two villains, the Duke and the King. And the set by Ray Klausen consisting of big, oversized pages of Twain's novels with doors and windows for people to go in and out of, is yet another enchanting element of this clever production
Rest assured that this "Big River" is not a sluggish, languid trip down the 'ole Mississippi but rather a high spirited romp down the white water rapids of Twain's classic tale of friendship and growing up.
$25.00 Rush Tickets can be purchased two hours in advance at the Academy of Music Box Office.
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