The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Roundabout Theatre Company And Deaf West Theatre in association with Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum Present
In approaching anything written by Mark Twain, it's impossible not to get swept away in a veritable flood of words and emotions. One of the most quintessential of all American voices, Twain's universality has never been in doubt. It has, however, seldom been embraced as fully and completely as Roundabout's new production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Ray Klausen has designed a set for this version of the 1985 musical that takes its every cue from the landmark novel on which the show is based. The stage is graced with representations of pages from the book - some bound, others free - and a world of other surprises hidden in the floor, the steps, and even the very walls that literally bring the book to life. When Twain himself (Daniel Jenkins, star of the original production) appears to narrate the show, it really is as if he's revealing all the most minute details of the work for us to consider.
The miracle of this particular production is how hard it works at bringing those messages and intricacies to everyone, regardless of their ability to hear Roger Miller's music and lyrics or William Hauptman's dialogue. As first devised by Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, this Big River successfully navigates the difficult tides often inhibiting communication between those who hear and those who do not.
While highly unusual for a musical of this scale, director Jeff Calhoun has not only made the communication work, but has validated it artistically. First, the communion and synergy demonstrated by the members of the 18-person cast (a number of whom experience some degree of hearing loss) is an ideal mirror for the unified society that Twain's novel - perhaps one of the greatest anti-slavery arguments put upon paper - demanded.
Secondly, the very execution of that communication is theatrical art of the most rewarding kind. There are the more obvious solutions, such as double casting the role of Huck's father with Lyle Kanouse and Troy Kotsur, dressing (by David R. Zyla) them identically, and creatively layering the interaction between the speaking and singing Kanouse and the signing Kotsur. Having Jenkins speak and sing - in his Twain guise - for the signing Huck (the role Jenkins originated), Tyrone Giordano, is more adventurous. But nothing quite compares to the exquisite, exciting beauty of seeing a stage full of people all performing perfectly synchronized American Sign Language gestures while singing the show's songs. It's an unexpectedly elegant form of choreography that enhances the messages of the show for both hearing and non-hearing audience members.
All of that's the good news.
The bad news is that, for all the invention displayed in this production of Big River, there's little anyone involved can do to mask the platitudinous nature of the show itself.
But while any theatre piece would be hard pressed to match Twain's keen-eyed depictions of the 19th century social tapestry, Hauptman's book remains a haphazard solution. It's often more of a guidebook to life on the Mississippi than a spiritual invocation of Twain. Rambunctious young boys, religious devotees, con men, and slave traders all existed in Twain's America, but Twain certainly never saw them as the watery, often unexceptional people the way they're depicted here.
No, Hauptman sees only Huck and Jim (Michael McElroy), the slave he's determined to help to freedom, as the only two real characters; the others are essentially transitory fantasies. (The cameo appearance of Tom Sawyer, played by Michael Arden, has so been reduced to insignificance by the deletion of his big character number, "Hand for the Hog," that one can't help but think Calhoun considered him an unimportant part of the Twain canon.) Duke and King (Kotsur and Kanouse again), who lure Huck and Jim into their web of intrigue to bilk as much money as possible out of as many people as possible, are major secondary characters, though they detract from the central story instead of contributing to it.
Miller's score is guilty of that to some degree, with songs like "Worlds Apart" or "Free At Last" that reduce the complicated racial issues of 1885 America to the 1985 political idiom. Songs like "Muddy Water" or "River in the Rain" better capture the character and the mood of the period as it relates to the river of the title, the source of life for Huck and freedom for Jim. Musically, Miller's work is fine, with a number of bouncing, mildly catchy songs attractively embracing the musical and linguistic styles of the period.
The performing company is also well-appointed. Giordano's Huck is winning, a complete performance alone, made more effective still by Jenkins's expertly-honed contributions. McElroy's Jim is acted, sung, and signed with great poetic conviction. Kotsur and Kanouse are more effective as the Duke and the King than as Huck's father, the one time Calhoun's dramatic gambit doesn't quite pay off. Walter Charles sticks out as the most adept of the "voice actors," playing a number of roles, and Melissa van der Schyff is youthfully appealing as the young woman to whom Huck takes a liking.
The cast and the production they inspire sell this Big River in a way that even Miller's fine composition cannot. Granted, it's a lean adaptation of an already somewhat anemic work, but it suggests the fine possibilities Deaf West Theatre and Broadway may continue to explore in making musicals more accessible for everyone. And this production proves that you don't have to sacrifice immediacy or verve to do it which makes this highly American musical seem, in so many ways, more American and vital - if not better - than ever.