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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Magical Revival of
Big River: The Adventues of Huckleberry Finn

Also see Richard's review of The Fantasticks

The Deaf West Theatre production of Roger Miller’s Big River: The Adventues of Huckleberry Finn launches its national tour at the Curran Theatre where it will run through July 10th. I first saw this charming family musical in 1985 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre with Daniel Jenkins playing the young Huck Finn and the great Rene Auberjonois playing a sly huckster. Although both Auberjonois and Jenkins were nominated for feature actor in a musical, Ron Richardson (who played Jim) walked off with the award. The production won the Tony for best musical and played 1005 performances, followed by a successful road show tour.

Over the years, regional companies throughout the states have presented the tuner for their Christmas presentation since it is an old fashioned family musical that appeals to kids and adults alike. The Willows Theatre presented a super production of Big River several years ago [review is available in the archives].

The prestigious Deaf West Theatre of Los Angeles decided to present the musical as a combination of spoken and non-spoken actions at their theatre in North Hollywood in 2001. It was an instant success and the Los Angeles critics raved about the use of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf actors working in harmony, signing very word, and giving new impetus to this charming musical. The production was so successful it moved to the Mark Taper in November 2002 where it again received a round of applause from the critics. The Roundabout Theatre in New York presented the production last year at the American Airlines Theatre where it got thumbs up reports from many critics.

This production of Big River is invigorating with an outstanding cast. Some of the actors are deaf, some are hearing impaired and some are neither, but every one of them is extraordinary. All of the roles are both spoken and signed, and it works beautifully. It’s almost a ballet with the movements of hands and body. At many points, there are two actors portraying one character, with one performer speaking and the other acting out the scene.

Big RiverTyrone Giordano and Company

Tony nominee Daniel Jenkins now plays Mark Twain; he is the voice with the exceptional non-speaking Tony Giordano. Jenkins uses a wonderful Huck Finn voice that is music to my ears; he sings in a Missouri teenaged voice that is fantastic. Giordano is a wonder as he makes music with his splendidly expressive face, his sprightly body and adroit hands. There is an amazing fluid expressiveness in this young man’s gifted acting; it makes speaking words almost superfluous.

Michael McElroy plays the central role of Jim, the runaway slave. He has a thrilling voice, and he speaks and signs his role. His performance is graceful and there is a lot of passion in his voice when he sings “Worlds Apart” and “Muddy Water” with the non-speaking Giordano. Gwen Stewart as the slave Alice has a powerful gospel voice when she sings the “How Blest We Are”. Her voice rings out throughout the theatre. Alice's daughter is played by non-speaking Christina Dunams in a heartfelt performance as she is separated from her mother by slave dealers.

Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine play sleazy, inept conmen (The Duke and King, respectively) and both are hilarious. Their song "Guv’ment" is a riot, with Devine singing and Kotsur acting out the “dadgum, dadgum” government. (It’s almost a thesis on today’s world.) The speaking voice of The Duke is brilliantly presented by James Judy. Christopher J. Hanke makes a delightful Tom Sawyer with a great Missouri twang. Melissa van der Schyff is lovely as Mary Jane Wilkes, and her voice is bell clear in “How Blest We Are.” Ryan Schlecht is a perfect hick from the country in the fun song “Arkansas,” presented with a great Grand Ole Opry sound by Scott Barnhardt.

Roger Miller’s score is very distinctive with its toe-tapping, hip-slapping melodies. There is a certain melodious flair about his work, and the lyrics are strictly colloquial. All of the voices of the singers are fine. The movements, under the direction and choreography by Jeff Calhoun, are beautifully accomplished. This is especially true of Giordano and Jenkins. It is inspirational when the entire ensemble suddenly stops and sings the final stanza of “Waiting for the Light to Shine.”

Ray Klausen’s set is interesting, with huge, sepia colored pages from the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The books are also turned into various set pieces, and continue to remind us of the tone of the American literary masterpiece. The orchestra under the direction of Steven Landau is on the upper right of the proscenium stage. They put out some good old fashioned "stuff kicking" music.

Big River: The Adventues of Huckleberry Finn runs through July 10th at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco, Ca as part of the Best of Broadway series. For tickets call ticketmaster at 415-512-7770 or go onto their website www.ticketmaster.com.

Movin' Out comes to the Golden Gate on July 6th as part of the Best of Broadway series and runs through August 29th.


Photo: Joan Marcus


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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