Big River: The Adventures
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum, is a production of Deaf West Theatre, and audiences unfamiliar with Deaf West might be concerned with what they're about to get. Perhaps they even fear the production will be a wholly signed venture, in which one or two speaking performers stand in a downstage half-light and provide voice interpretation in much the same way hearing productions provide a sign-language interpreted performance. Such fears are unfounded. Big River is a musical in which sign and voice are fully integrated in a production that is equally engaging for deaf and hearing audiences.
Indeed, the sign and voice elements of this show are so evenly balanced, it is sometimes difficult to say whether signers are interpreting for speakers or vice versa. Every character is fully realized through both voice and sign - this is accomplished through different, creative ways, which frequently add to the show. Thus Huck is a non-speaking character, signed by Tyrone Giordano, but he is voiced by Scott Waara, the actor who is also playing Mark Twain. Having Huck voiced by Twain emphasizes the connection between the two, reminding us that Huck's interior monologues are provided by the author. Another excellent technique is the way Huck's father, Pap, is performed. When Pap first appears, he signs, and his voice is provided by an unknown person offstage. But Pap quickly opens a door onto a full-length mirror and reveals his other, speaking, self. The two Paps then continue to performing together, as two halves of the same whole - when one takes a drink, the other wipes his mouth. It is terrific comic work, and watching the two men share the role makes Pap much funnier than he otherwise would be. A third way in which voice and sign come together is where certain characters are paired, and one signs while the other speaks. But the pairing is logical - two sisters interpret for each other; a mother speaks while her daughter signs - and it is easy to accept two of them sharing thoughts and their expression.
There is so much other wonderful work going on in this production, it is almost a shame to dwell on the sign language aspects of it. And yet, sign is used to enhance the production so much - even for audience members who don't understand a word of it - a little dwelling is understandable. Take Tony Award-winner Phyllis Frelich, who plays Huck's stern caretaker Miss Watson, and signs with such precise, crisp movements, there is a lifetime of upstanding churchgoing in her every word. Or the delightful staging of "We Are The Boys," in which Tom Sawyer's gang of boys kneel in a circle and cheerfully sign their creed into its center as though they were playing a hand-stacking game. But the most enduring image of the entire show occurs when Huck and Jim board their raft on the Mississippi and joyously explode in song. As Huck kneels in front of Jim, they sing of their upcoming ride down the river. On the final note, as they sing the word "ride," Jim's hand rides on the back of Huck's to execute the two-handed sign for the word, and a world of hope and trust is encompassed in that single gesture.
For this production's transfer to the Taper, the cast has been spiffed up with some Broadway vocal talent, resulting in a company that is extremely strong in all departments. Rufus Bonds Jr. flat-out nails the role of Jim, knowing exactly when to hit the playful elements of the script and when to emphasize Jim's painful desire for freedom. Bonds also has a killer singing voice, which gets a good chance to soar on some of Roger Miller's more gospel-influenced tunes. Scott Waara's Mark Twain is suitably self-effacing and hospitable as he escorts us through the show, and his voice blends well with Bonds's when he is singing for Huck. Tyrone Giordano plays Huck with a goofy charm, and by emphasizing Huck's basic goodness, he never lets Huck's lack of education come off as stupidity. Of note among the supporting players are Gwen Stewart, who sings the roof off the place as the slave, Alice; Michael Davis, whose fun-loving Tom Sawyer is perfectly matched by Rod Keller's impossibly boyish vocal work; and Lyle Kanouse and Troy Kotsur, who follow up their comic partnership as Pap with the portrayal of the two villains of the piece, two runaway convicts who join Huck and Jim on their raft, and involve them in all manner of nefarious plots.
It cannot be forgotten that, in spite of some genuine emotional moments, Big River is basically children's theatre. Based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, William Hauptman's book has its emphasis clearly on the word adventures. We may all remember Twain's novel as a classic of American literature and a statement against slavery, and we may associate it with the censorship debates it sometimes incites, but this adaptation is frequently simply the story of a boy who goes off in search of a great adventure and finds one. Roger Miller's hummable score is sometimes country, sometimes folk, and sometimes gospel, but it is also sometimes corny children's theatre.
Sometimes it is difficult to recommend children's theatre to adults; the phrase "fun for the whole family" generally means "nothing will offend children, but adults will be bored to tears." This production of Big River is the exception, partially due to the honesty and dignity with which it treats its slave characters, but even more because of the unique staging that arises from combining voice and sign. The show is playful, catchy, well-sung, and charmingly staged, but there are moments where its use of sign is jaw-droppingly stunning. Big River will likely be the first Deaf West production seen by many hearing theatregoers, but it won't be the last.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director and Deaf West Theatre; Ed Waterstreet, Artistic Director; Bill O'Brien, Producing Director present The Deaf West Theatre Production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller; Book by William Hauptman; Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain. Directed and Choreographed by Jeff Calhoun; Music Director Steven Landau. Scenic Design by Ray Klausen; Costume Design by David R. Zyla; Lighting Design by Michael Gilliam; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen; Hair and Wig Design by Carol F. Doran. Associate Director Coy Middlebrook; Associated Choreographer Patti D'Beck; Head ASL Master Freda Norman; ASL Masters Linda Bove, Betsy Ford, Anthony Natale; Production Interpreter Catherine Richardson Kiwitt; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA, and Bruce H. Newberg, CSA. Production Stage Manager James T. McDermott; Stage Managers Meredith J. Greenburg and Tina R. Perrucci.
Big River plays at the Mark Taper Forum through December 29, 2002. For tickets and information, see www.taperahmanson.com.