Helmer Jeff Calhoun has accomplished a near-seamless interplay of speaking and signing performers in Deaf West’s staging of “Big River,” the ambitious 1985 Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Tony-winner Calhoun, who directed last year’s award-winning staging of Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!,” has again used the book’s author (Twain instead of Dickens) to serve as narrator, the original text facilitating the continuity of the storyline, and the results are even more rewarding. Enhancing Calhoun’s efforts are the creative set panels of Ray Klausen and the period-perfect four-piece instrumental ensemble under the direction of keyboardist Steven Landau.
Led by Bill O’Brien’s (recurring on “West Wing”) effectively twangy outing as Twain and his country-rich vocal turn as the voice of Huck Finn (signed by Tyrone Giordano), this Deaf West production does great justice to Roger Miller’s score.
Set in the 1840s, the plot focuses on Huck Finn’s efforts to help runaway slave Jim (James Black), escape to the North. Of course, his adventures are populated with all the classic characters from the novel: the scampish Tom Sawyer (Michael Davis), Huck’s ne’er-do-well father Papp Finn (Troy Kotsur), roguish con men Duke (Allen Neece) and King (Lyle Kanouse), the Widow Douglas (Mary Jo Catlett), Judge Thatcher (Olav Axelsen) and Huck’s first love, Mary Jane Wilkes (Melissa van der Schyff). Almost upstaging the performances are Klausen’s magnificent panels that magically convert from giant reproductions of the illustrated pages of Twain’s novel to the production’s many settings.
O’Brien (who also produces) achieves a winning presence as a youngish Twain moving in and out of the ensemble as he takes on the speaking/singing duties for Giordano’s endearing Huck. O’Brien sets the tone for Huck’s innate wanderlust with his heartfelt, “I’m Waiting for the Light to Shine.”
Though his speaking voice is occasionally too understated and undervolumed, Black exudes a striking presence and a sense of humble urgency as the slave attempting to gain his freedom on the Mississippi River.
His singing voice also lacks the range and power necessary to really sell the river anthem, “Muddy Water,” but he is quite effective in his softer duets with O’Brien.
One of the joys of Calhoun’s staging is his inventive use of signing and speaking actors who are portraying the same role. The comical highlight of the first act is Papp Finn’s ornery rendition of “You Dad Gum Government,” signed and sung with synergistic glee by Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse, respectively. The same rapport is established by Davis’ Tom Sawyer and his irrepressible signing rendition of “We Are the Boys,” aided admirably by the voice of Rod Keller.
The costumes of David Zyla and the lights of Michael Gilliam do much to underscore the high level of professionalism Deaf West Theater has attained over the past few years.