Deaf West Theater's highly praised production of "Big River" has made a lively and graceful transfer to the Mark Taper stage, and an excellent cast of speaking and signing actors capture both the humor of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and its power as a tract against bigotry and injustice.
Deaf West Theater’s highly praised production of “Big River” has made a lively and graceful transfer to the Mark Taper stage, and an excellent cast of speaking and signing actors capture both the humor of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and its power as a tract against bigotry and injustice. Although many actors sing and speak for co-stars, on or offstage or in the aisles, the imaginative blocking provides unity and an illusion that speech or song emanate from one character. Scott Waara, as Huck’s acting and singing other half, is a notable example of director Jeff Calhoun’s success blending music and movement.
Ray Klausen’s set — an explosion of huge, sepia-colored pages from the book — establishes a tone both literary and accessible, and narrator Twain (Waara) begins with the story of the rebellious, independent Huck Finn (Tyrone Giordano). Early scenes with the Widow Douglas (Carol Kline), who wants to civilize Huck against his will, and friendship with Tom Sawyer (Michael Davis) move ahead in likable, leisurely fashion before charging into the heart of the show — Huck’s river journey with runaway slave Jim (Rufus Bonds Jr.).
Adapter William Hauptman skillfully weaves together the strands of Twain’s sprawling plot in this 1985 Tony-winning musicalization of “Huckleberry Finn.” Hauptman emphasizes Huck’s ambivalence, his guilt over his growing attachment to a man society tells him to despise. Giordano conveys affection without minimizing callous impulses. His moments of cruelty register vividly, since Bonds’ Jim is a human being of stature and strength. Bonds’ towering performance has such impact that there’s a sense of deprivation whenever the script drops him for other characters.
These include the amusing Duke (Troy Kotsur) and King (Lyle Kanouse), two sleazy, inept con men who enlist Huck’s cooperation until he sees them steal an inherited fortune from beautiful young Mary Jane (Melissa van der Schyff). He saves the financial day for Mary Jane, and when Duke and King put Jim’s freedom in jeopardy, he acts from conscience, rather than custom, and rescues his friend.
Roger Miller’s unique, melodic flair and witty, colloquial lyric style cleverly aid the situations without being wordy or spelling out story points too literally. Giordano’s Huck is immensely appealing, signing “I, Huckleberry, Me” to Waara’s vocal, telling us, “I’ll never change for no one, no matter what they say.” “Guv’ment,” performed by Papp (Kotsur — vocal by Kanouse), Huck’s brutal, alcoholic father, takes pungent potshots at leaders with “damn hands in every pocket.” “Hand for the Hog,” where Huck fakes his own death, is a puppet-driven sequence that demonstrates the show’s occasional tendency to sugarcoat and evade Twain’s dark side.
But the score cuts deep on “The Crossing,” a mournful hymn by recaptured runaway slaves, and soars when Waara/Giordano sing “River in the Rain” (enhanced by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen’s storm sounds and Michael Gilliam’s lighting). “Worlds Apart” benefits from a subtle, beautifully directed conclusion when Tom and Jim’s hands reach for each other but never touch. Further directorial inspiration is having the entire ensemble suddenly stop singing and sign the final stanza of “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” against the show’s brilliant blue backdrop.
Calhoun’s choice of singers is uniformly splendid. Bonds is pitch-perfect and powerful, and Gwen Stewart’s gritty gospel stylings provide a direct route to musical heaven. Van der Schyff brings unaffected charm to her brief ingenue role, vocally and dramatically. Musical director Steven Landau and his fine four-man band offer flavorful, authentic country sounds, and David R. Zyla’s costumes are a visual feast, from hoopskirts to muddy shirts and the laughably ludicrous sight of Kanouse tarred and feathered.