Sometimes, the introduction of a fresh idea or approach to an existing theater piece can make a world of difference. The musical Big River has earned a reputation as a pleasant and fun show since it debuted twenty years ago, but hasn't really been noteworthy for much besides winning a lot of Tony Awards (7) in the very weak 1985 season on Broadway. However, the decision to restage the show with the integration of American Sign Language (ASL) has resulted in a revitalized and moving re-conception. The Deaf West Theatre production now touring the country breathes new life into this show and adds layers to the meaning and impact of the material in unique ways. As currently performed at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, this Big River is one that is thoroughly entertaining, compelling and original.
Big River is a musicalization of Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story follows young Huck in pre-Civil War America. Huck is torn between the choices of living a wild, responsibility-free life with his abusive drunken father versus holding to the strict expectations of the townsfolk who have taken him in. The young protagonist also has to deal with his confusion about what is right or wrong in the world. Huck stages his own death so he can seek adventures elsewhere, and he and runaway slave Jim board a raft down the Mississippi. There, they find much conflict and great joy as they encounter a slew of unique characters and situations. They also learn a lot about friendship and themselves.
The book for Big River by William Hauptman has its strengths and weaknesses, just as does the source material. The first act has a considerably stronger narrative than the second act, which tends to meander. Also, the main storytelling device used is narration, from both Mark Twain (as a character) and Huck himself. We are too often told what happened rather than shown. However, there is a good deal of effectively written humor and relationship-building dialogue. The book flows quickly with lots of action and plenty of conflict. The themes of friendship and freedom (from slavery, abusive fathers, societal expectations) are universal. The story is a fun one including lots of social and historical relevance, and a moral conscience.
The score by the late country songwriter Roger Miller too has its pros and cons. All of the songs contain catchy melodies that are a very good fit to the story. Miller's work includes some very effective spirituals ("The Crossing," "How Blest We Are," "Free At Last") and wonderful anthems and duets for Huck and Jim ("River In the Rain," "Muddy Water"). Huckleberry's spirited "Waitin' For the Light To Shine" (where he longs to know his place in the world) and the plaintive trio "Leavin' Not The Only Way To Go" are also musical highlights. However, the lyrics at times are not up to level of the music, and very few songs really advance the plot forward. There are a number of comedic songs included as well, but they rarely land with the same punch as the more emotional tunes do. Still, the score is one that audiences will likely go home humming.
For this rethinking of the piece, director Jeff Calhoun has seamlessly combined hearing and non-hearing performers together in a collaboration that is stunning. All lyrics and dialogue are communicated in both spoken English and through signed ASL. In some instances, an actor both sings and signs. At other times, a deaf performer signs and acts out the role, while another performer on stage supplies the vocals. In the case of Huck's pap, two actors in the same costume simultaneously act out the role side by side, one signing and one singing. A non-hearing actor performs the leading role of Huck. While this role is acted and signed by the performer, the actor playing Mark Twain provides the vocals. As complicated as it might appear, the dual use of these two languages in telling the story works amazingly well. The richness of the voices matched with the visual beauty of the signing is a winning twosome. Calhoun stages the piece with great care and ingenuity throughout, including a breathtaking moment towards the end of the piece that is chill inducing. Though there is little traditional dancing, the signing is choreographed together with excellent precision.
Deaf actor Garrett Matthew Zuercher conveys the wide-eyed innocence and exuberance of Huck through his portrayal and is endearingly expressive in the role. As the slave Jim, David Aron Damane supplies a wonderfully big and soulful singing voice and a detailed performance. During his years as a student performer at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music, Adam Monley became a favorite of many area theatergoers, and he returns to Cincinnati here as Mark Twain and the voice of Huck. Onstage almost constantly, Monley is a delight in the demanding part. His singing of Huck's material shows off an attractive and strong tenor voice, and he also plays numerous instruments in accompaniment during the show. As Twain, Adam is a commanding and humorous presence, and he distinguishes his voices for Huck and Twain well. There is also fine work provided in support by both hearing and non-hearing performers, including Erick Devine, Troy Kotsur, Gwen Stewart, Melissa Van Der Schyff, James Judy, Benjamin Shrader, and Tony winner Phyllis Frelich.
The simple yet creative set design by Ray Klausen features loose pages from Twain's novels which can be turned to reveal doors, windows, traps, and various set pieces. The lighting by Michael Gilliam aids the piece greatly, and costumes by David R. Zyla are just as they should be. Steven Landau leads a talented seven-piece band.
The song "Worlds Apart" is a duet for Huck and Jim about how they, despite their differences in color and status, have connected through friendship. With the integration of hearing and non-hearing performers and staging in this production, the song takes on an additional meaning where actors and audiences members, be them deaf or hearing, can find shared pleasure in a stirring piece of theater.
The national tour of Big River continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through March 27, 2005. Tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 241-7469.