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St. Louis by Robert Boyd

Big River

Also see Richard's review of Love, Sex and the IRS

Deaf West theater’s traveling production of Big River, the Tony-winning musical based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn , has opened a two-week run at the Fox, as a part of the U.S. Bank Broadway series. Using both speaking and deaf actors, and an intriguing combination of speech and singing and American Sign Language, this production aims for full integration of the deaf and hearing theater experiences. It is a noble goal, and an imposing one, and to say that the show in performance does not quite reach such lofty heights is not to say that it does not have its worthy moments.

Chief among these is the soul-stirring spiritual “Free at Last,” sung by David Aron Damane as Jim, the runaway slave who finds at the end of the story that he is indeed free. The combination of Mr. Damane’s warm, rich baritone and composer Roger Miller’s insightful setting of the old spiritual is truly thrilling. Another highlight is the performance of Adam Monley as Mark Twain and as the “voice” of Huck Finn, who is mimed with great energy and agility by deaf actor Garrett Matthew Zuercher. Mr. Monley is onstage for very nearly the entire evening, and he not only keeps his two voices distinct and consistent, but keeps the energy level high throughout the show. Another standout performance is that of Mellisa Van der Schyff, who plays the winsome Mary Jane Wilkes and supplies the voices for her sister, Jane Wilkes, and for the spinster Miss Watson. Still another superb bit of theater is the physically, almost magical, pairing of Troy Kotsur and Eric Devine as Huck Finn’s lowlife father. Mr. Devine, who speaks, and Mr. Kotsur, who does not, first appear as mirror images, and for the next few minutes, they move, dance, sing, speak and sign as if they were one person with two bodies. It is a virtuoso turn, and though the two also do solid work as the villainous King and Duke, it is their duet as Pap that merits the standing ovation.

The large cast is managed adroitly by director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun, the on-stage band, under the direction of Steven Landau, is splendid. The set, by Ray Klausen, is sometimes awkward, in that it is not always easy to tell when the characters are on the raft and when they aren’t, but it is colorful and especially clever in the handling of the intermission. Costumes, by David R. Zyla, are among the production’s strongest points.

In the final analysis, combining signing with spoken dialogue, and the use of shadow characters to voice those who don’t speak, is asking a lot of the audience, deaf and hearing. For the deaf the voices don’t help, so that Mr. Damane’s performance, for example, is inevitably diminished, even though the choreography of gesture has its own beauty; for the hearing, the slight but noticeable delays necessitated by the signed “simulcast” of the dialogue and lyrics, and the presence of the ancillary movement, regardless of how deft and aesthetically pleasing it may be in its own right, produce a distracting disjunction. It is almost as if there were two plays unfolding simultaneously, each drawing deserved attention to itself, making it hard for the audience to follow either one as carefully as it deserves.

Big River will run through April 24 at the Fox Theater. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or go online to Metrotix.com.


-- Robert Boyd

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