The Deaf West Theatre Production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues its national tour, after a limited appearance on Broadway. The unique staging provides a refreshing layer of interpretation that works very well with this show. Based on the classic novel by Mark Twain, the musical has a book by William Hauptman and songs by Roger Miller.
This production uses a mixture of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf performers. Some roles are double cast (one actor speaking, one signing) and some actors speak as well as sign. It has been said, and I agree, that this staging emphasizes the theme of separation - something that Huck feels and that weighs heavily in the story's racial conflicts. The signing also adds an artistic layer, a combination of body language and choreography. Once you get in the rhythm of things, the voices become something like sub-titles; you may feel you understand American Sign Language by almost inadvertently absorbing the audible dialog.
Mark Twain never saw the success of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; it was labeled "trash and suitable only for the slums" and banned by many libraries. However, the novel has been regarded as a classic in the years since his death, considered by many to be the wellspring of all American literature since.
Though never becoming as involving and delightful as the novel itself, the musical follows the high points of Huck's adventures. Wealthy from his escapades with Tom Sawyer in the preceding novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck goes through significant life changes. His guardians, the sisters Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, try to make a God-fearing and well-mannered boy out of him, then his violent drunkard father returns and takes Huck away. Before long, life with Pap becomes unbearable and Huck fakes his own death and escapes. He meets up with Miss Watson's slave, Jim, who has run from being sold. Jim and Huck head down river on a raft, trying to find their way to Cairo, Illinois, so Jim can find freedom in the northern states. The characters they meet along the way and a reunion with Tom shape the fate of both Huck and Jim.
The music written by Roger Miller is appropriately folksy and country inspired, with a few gospel-influenced ballads and group songs to round things out. The staging is simple and consists mostly of several large renderings of pages from the novel, some of which have doorways for use by the cast. Mark Twain, played by Adam Monley, is the narrator, and Monley also provides the voice for the character of Huckleberry Finn. He is a solid, fine-voiced performer, unobtrusively providing Finn's twang in dialog and song. Huck is acted and signed by Garrett Matthew Zuercher, who inhabits the role with boyish enthusiasm and naiveté. The two work well together, bringing Huck Finn to life in a multi-dimensional portrayal. Other performers of note are Phyllis Frelich as the prim Miss Watson (voiced by Melissa Van Der Schyff), and the two Paps - Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine. Troy Kotsur turns in a very well developed performance as Duke, one of the charlatans met along the river.
With the doubling of several roles and a good sized ensemble, it shouldn't be that the show seems too small for the Heinz Hall stage, but that's what happens. The signing makes the show more intimate, and that intimacy cannot be fully appreciated in a theater of this size.
Big River: The Adventues of Huckleberry Finn, through March 13 at Heinz Hall. Visit www.pgharts.org for more information.