Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
a Kate West review
music and lyrics by Roger Miller; book by William Hauptman
directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun
a Deaf West Theatre Production
at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
January 11 -23, 2005; Call 213-628-2772
Rarely does a stage production come along so fascinatingly innovative that you remember it for days. The Deaf West Theatre's adaptation of "Big River", now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, is just such a piece.
Roughly half the performers are deaf, first of all, already an unusual device in a musical. The speaking actors can all sign, resulting in a delightful collaboration of seamless synchronicity. Each deaf actor has a speaking partner shadowing him or her 'voicing ' their lines. It all works remarkably well, as evidenced by the wonderful choreography of Jeff Calhoun (also the director). Some of the hearing actors are on their own, such as Michael McElroy, who gives a very moving performance as the runaway slave Jim. He signs for himself.
Not only is a musical version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" an interesting choice, but it takes on an added dimension of emotional intensity in this particular production. And it stays true to the original text of the beloved story. Mark Twain is the narrator, impeccably and commandingly portrayed by Daniel Jenkins, who voices the character of Huck (played by the delightful and extraordinarily talented Tyrone Giordano). He relates the entire story, beginning with Huck's escapades with Tom Sawyer (Benjamin Schrader), his running away from Widow Douglas (Cathy Newman) and helping Jim escape slavehood, despite his uneasy conscience. Huck was brought up to believe it is a sin to free a black slave but his adventures with Jim teach him the inhumanity of that belief and he vows to stay true to Jim, even if it means hell and damnation for himself, a seemingly very powerful deterrent.
Along the way, he has to address his own history, especially with his father, Pap, signed by Troy Kotsur and voiced by Erick Devine. This character is the most delightful of all because the two actors who portray him work so well together. When one succumbs to the devil drink and takes a swig out of the jug, the other wipes his mouth. They move in perfect harmony and are dressed in identical rags. It is a very clever device. Huck runs away from his drunken father, never hoping to find a decent life, but accepting his present wild existence.
Later, Huck and Jim encounter two scoundrels, the Duke (signed by the versatile Troy Kotsur and voiced by James Judy) and the King (Erick Devine), who impress him tremendously at first, but he soon learns that although they talk pretty fancy they are dishonest men and not worthy of his or Jim's friendship. They try to trick everyone they meet. Huck helps one victim, the lovely Joanna Wilkes (signed by Alexandria Wailes and voiced by Melissa Van Der Schyff), escape the two criminals and as a result most of the characters are redeemed, including the slave Jim, who to Huck's initial astonishment, has the same human feelings for his own family as do white folk.
Jeff Calhoun is to be profoundly commended for this amazing production. All the actors are acutely aware of each other and work in harmonious precision together. Threre are no weak moments and no weak actors. All the musical numbers are show-stomping fun and one even ends in silence, with the entire cast signing together which will send a chill up your spine. It would have been interesting had the final moment on stage ended in silence as well, since there were a good number of deaf actors and audience members and a notable reference to deafness in the production itself. The original book is of course, a defining statement about ignorance and intolerance and thus a perfect venue for this theater company.
It earned a much deserved that standing ovation on opening night and proves to be a huge hit with audiences, based on overheard post-play discussions. Tip: in the world of the non-hearing, applause is signified by fluttering your hands above your head. (Not to worry, all will become clear if you attend). It looks like they will have sold-out houses for their entire run. And well they should.
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