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No sleep ’til ‘Brooklyn’

Calhoun takes chances with 'Big River' and more

NEW YORK Jeff Calhoun is a stage director and choreographer, but he seems to have spent the last two years juggling.

The whirlwind began when Calhoun staged “Big River” at L.A.’s Deaf West Theater in 2001. He then came back to New York to workshop the new musical “Brooklyn” before returning to the coast to transfer “Big River” into the Mark Taper Forum.

Next, “Brooklyn” bowed at the Denver Civic Theater — and then it was back to “Big River,” this time on Broadway.

Now, Calhoun is at work again on “Brooklyn,” which is eyeing an intermediary step (Connecticut’s Stamford Center, perhaps?) before a hoped-for arrival in Gotham in 2004.

The combo of Mark Twain and deaf actors has not been an easy sell, either at the Mark Taper or on Broadway, where audience interest in “Big River” was next to nil before positive buzz goosed the B.O.

“It continues to be this Cinderella story,” Calhoun says. The show is playing to more than 90% capacity at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, and thanks to enhancement money from the Independent Producers Network, “Big River” will be the road org’s followup to “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” with a big national tour planned for 2004 and beyond.

The “Big River” success has also turned “Brooklyn” into a real contender. Calhoun is both directing and co-producing with Grammy and Emmy winner John McDaniel (“The Rosie O’Donnell Show”). They worked together on the last “Grease” revival, with Calhoun at the helm and McDaniel in the pit conducting.

To finance the first “Brooklyn” workshop, “I sold all my stocks and liquidated everything but my apartment,” Calhoun reveals. “Everyone told me not to do it, except for Graciela Daniele, who told me, ‘If you love it, do it.’ ”

He and McDaniel split the $250,000 cost right down the middle.

Broadway’s big musical houses remain at a premium, but that doesn’t put a crimp in Calhoun’s strategy for “Brooklyn.” He’s thinking more “Avenue Q” at the Golden than “Wicked” at the Gershwin: A 900-seat theater will do just fine for this $6.5 million tuner with its cast of five and seven-member orchestra.

Written by newcomers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, “Brooklyn” tells the story of five homeless people who perform every night under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next up, Calhoun is looking at a new musical based on “Cyrano de Bergerac” for Deaf West, the creative team soon to be announced: “The irony is that Cyrano would be deaf and he is the poet who puts the words in the mouth of Christian, who is hearing.”

Calhoun continues to look to expand on the variations of pairing deaf and hearing actors. One approach he has not yet tried is the kind of triple casting he once experienced on the ill-fated “Busker Alley.”

At one point in that show’s long, slow death, star Tommy Tune had broken his foot. He sang the show while Calhoun tapped it — and David Warren Gibson danced all the other numbers.

Did that experience help to inspire his unique stagings for Deaf West?

Calhoun isn’t about to make the connection to “Busker Alley.”

“Those two words together still make me sweat,” he says.