Review: ‘Big River’

Huckleberry Finn's sunbeam smile, which lights up the stage at regular intervals in this magical revival of the musical "Big River," isn't always framed by the expected climax, a soaring bit of singing. For, though he's deaf, Tyrone Giordano's mischievous brown eyes, his marvelously expressive face, his agile body and deft hands form their own sort of chamber orchestra, thrillingly underscoring words being spoken and sung by another actor.

Huckleberry Finn’s sunbeam smile, which lights up the stage at regular intervals in this magical revival of the musical “Big River,” isn’t always framed by the expected climax, a soaring bit of singing. In fact, although he’s playing the central role in this popular 1985 tuner adapted from the Mark Twain classic, Tyrone Giordano doesn’t sing at all — he’s deaf. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make music. On the contrary, Giordano’s mischievous brown eyes, his marvelously expressive face, his agile body and deft hands form their own sort of chamber orchestra, thrillingly underscoring words being spoken and sung by another actor.

Sound confusing? Distracting? Or worse, worthy? No sirree — exhilarating is more like it. This big-hearted, beautifully conceived production is not just a sterling revival of a sturdy musical, but also an eye-opening adventure, a new kind of theatrical experience. What’s more, it is both a practical illustration of, and a moving homage to, the embracing humanity of Twain’s touchstone novel.

A comfortably small-scaled production that has been ingeniously directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, it was first seen at Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theater Co., a troupe founded in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet that has steadily gained acclaim for its productions featuring the onstage use of both American Sign Language and spoken dialogue. “Big River” picked up a slew of L.A. theater awards and later transferred to the Mark Taper Forum; it arrives in New York courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Co., just in time to give some bounce to a sleepy summer on Broadway.

The cast is a mix: Some of the actors are deaf, some are hearing-impaired, some are neither — but all are impressively talented. All roles are both spoken and signed, only occasionally by the same person. The role of Huck, for instance, is shared by Giordano and Daniel Jenkins, who created it in the original Broadway staging. While Giordano signs the dialogue and scampers around, getting into and out of the well-known mischief, Jenkins speaks and sings along, unobtrusively, from a corner of the stage. The performances are so precisely synchronized that there’s never a moment in which a line spoken by Jenkins doesn’t perfectly match the variously wry, confounded, wounded, bored or terrified looks on Giordano’s face. My only caveat: The fluid eloquence of the immensely gifted Giordano’s acting sometimes serves to make language of any kind — spoken, signed or sung — seem redundant.

Jenkins also plays Twain himself, who provides the show with bookending bits of narration in William Hauptmann’s faithful adaptation of the novel. This piece of double-casting is just one of many instances in which the practical challenges of the staging result in an extra layer of illumination. The narrator isn’t just a creaky device here, a stiff bystander; Twain’s voice fuses with that of his most famous fictional creation, reminding us how the author, despite his tongue-in-cheek admonitions to the contrary, used the voices of his characters to illustrate, in sly but simple ironies, the moral darkness of the age he lived in. Twain’s voice threaded through every line of his books — and through Jenkins’ subtle integration into the proceedings, it is all the more hauntingly present here, too.

Similarly, the decision to have two actors — one signing, one speaking — perform the role of Huck’s troublesome father side by side onstage is an inspired piece of invention. It is both funny in itself — after one takes a swig from a jug of moonshine, the other slides his dirty sleeve across his mouth — and a metaphorical illustration of character. As Huck says, Pap is a divided soul at the mercy of opposing angels, good and bad. He’s also a scary, inescapably large presence in Huck’s life who fills up more space than anyone else in his son’s psyche. And he’s a terrible drunk, too: So soused here that he doesn’t just see double himself — he causes Huck to see it, too.

The actors who share the role, Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse, are a terrific comic twosome, and their rapport is reprised when they take the roles of the “Duke” and the “King,” the con men whose shenanigans almost capsize Huck’s desperate efforts to usher the runaway slave Jim to freedom (and himself to hell, or so he thinks). In fact, all of the roles are played with ample color and spark: Michael Arden is a bright-eyed and rambunctious Tom Sawyer; Melissa van der Schyff sings with a lovely, Dolly Parton-esque twang the role of Mary Ann Wilkes, a victim of the con men’s manipulations who touches Huck’s heart; Phyllis Frelich, the Tony-winning star of “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway, is an amusingly pinched Miss Watson; veteran Walter Charles provides the voice of the Duke and vividly speaks and signs several other small roles.

Calhoun integrates all the performances smoothly on a simple set by Ray Klausen that may not provide the visual allure of the Broadway original (from Heidi Landesman) but helps keep the focus on the interplay among the actors at center stage.

The central role of Jim is played by Michael McElroy, one of the few actors who sings, speaks and signs his role. The performance is graceful in all its aspects: McElroy’s powerful acting extends to his fingertips — there’s as much fervor in his signing as in his assured and emotionally vibrant singing. And when McElroy and Giordano sing together — which is to say sign together (while Jenkins actually sings) — on one of the outstanding songs from Roger Miller’s ebullient country score, “Muddy Water,” the climax finds each contributing a single hand to “speak” the final sign, a pointed indication of Huck’s growing empathy with a man he’d been “educated” to think of as something less than human.

It is in fact intriguing to rediscover that deafness itself plays a minor role in Twain’s novel. Particularly poignant here is Jim’s recounting of his sadness at the discovery that his young daughter had been left “deaf and dumb” after a bout of scarlet fever. This revelation comes just after Huck and Jim have performed another of the duets that serve to illustrate the closeness to Jim that sneaks up on Huck and subtly but irreversibly transforms his view of the world.

Miller’s lyrics for this song, “Worlds Apart,” are on the blunt and sentimental side — “I see the same stars through my window/That you see through yours/But we’re worlds apart” — but their simultaneous interpretation by actors whose experience of life may well be “worlds apart” powerfully underscores the penetrating truth in them. It is reinforced when the hearing members of the audiences are given a glimpse into the world inhabited by the deaf when the final chorus of another song is performed only in sign language, in sudden silence.

Those moments of silence are, in a way, as powerful — and as moving — as any musical climax being belted out on a Broadway stage right now. Despite his celebrated pessimism, and much evidence to the contrary, Twain believed in the power of words to change hearts and minds, to unite and to ennoble. This lovely production, in its singular way, shares that belief; it beautifully blends two forms of language to celebrate the unifying power of another American tongue — the language of musical theater.

Big River

American Airlines Theater; 728 seats; $91 top


A Roundabout Theater Co. and Deaf West Theater Co. presentation, in association with Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum, of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptmann, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.


Sets, Ray Klausen; costumes, David R. Zyla; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; music direction/special musical arrangements, Steven Landau; music coordinator, John Miller; production stage manager, Peter Hanson. Opened July 24, 2003. Reviewed July 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.


Mark Twain/Voice of Huck - Daniel Jenkins Huckleberry Finn - Tyrone Giordano Jim - Michael McElroy Tom Sawyer - Michael Arden Widow Douglas/Voice of Sally - Gina Ferrall Miss Watson/Sally - Phyllis Frelich Mary Jane Wilkes/Voice of Miss Watson/ Voice of Joanna Wilkes - Melissa van der Schyff Judge Thatcher/Harvey Wilkes/Silas - Iosif Schneiderman Ben Rogers/Puppeteer/Andy/Ronald Robinson - Scott Barnhardt Jo Harper/Lafe/Donald Robinson - Rod Keller Dick Simon/Hank/Young Fool - Ryan Schlecht Voice of Dick Simon/Voice of Harvey Wilkes/Voice of Hank - Drew McVety Pap/Duke - Troy Kotsur Pap/King/Voice of Silas - Lyle Kanouse Joanna Wilkes - Alexandra Wailes Preacher/Doctor/Voice of Judge/ Voice of Duke - Walter Charles Alice/Voice of Alice's Daughter/Slave - Gwen Steward Alice's Daughter/Slave - Christina Ellison Dunams
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