The acclaimed Deaf West production of “Big River” was a triumph at the Mark Taper in 2002, moved to Broadway in 2003 and is still relevant, thrilling theater at the Ahmanson. Lighthearted as the production’s general tone is, its dramatic moments are unflinching. Composer Roger Miller and librettist William Hauptman powerfully convey the horror of slavery, and memorably illustrate that ingrained prejudice can be transformed into mutually fulfilling friendship.
Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun stages opening song “Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?” with zest. Tyrone Giordano, as Huck Finn, retains the leaping physical flair and mischievously rebellious attitude that originally won over crowds and critics. Daniel Jenkins (who played Huck in the 1985 Broadway original and now is narrator Mark Twain) embodies the writer with idiosyncratic authority, and he superbly handles the singing and speaking for Giordano. In their scenes together, the two merge seamlessly as one character.
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Necessary exposition about Huck’s resentment of the Widow Douglas (Cathy Newman) and her attempts to civilize him is presented with appropriate speed, and there’s a lively episode centering on impulsive, adventure-seeking Tom Sawyer (Benjamin Schrader) that culminates in the joyous “We Are the Boys.” These setup sequences are entertaining, if occasionally too broad and exaggerated. But they fade into the background when Michael McElroy enters the scene as Jim, the runaway slave who tests Huck’s conscience and values.
McElroy’s imposing portrayal works on multiple levels. His singing has a magnificence that evokes comparisons with such legendary figures as Paul Robeson and William Warfield, and his emotional impact is doubled by a calm, subtle intensity that illuminates bottomless pain. He’s particularly poignant when talking about a desire to move north and get work so he can buy his enslaved wife and two children.
The Giordano-McElroy duets — “Muddy River,” the mournfully truthful “Worlds Apart” and the irresistibly melodic “River in the Rain” — provide reminders that musicals at their best can lift us to a special, euphoric plateau unmatched by any other medium.
Roger Miller’s banjo- and fiddle-flavored score remains notable for its variety. “I, Huckleberry Me,” rollickingly rendered by Giordano, is an ode to happiness and freedom, while “You Oughta Be Here With Me” is pure Dolly Parton-style country. “How Blest We Are” demonstrates Miller’s keen comprehension of gospel, and it’s brilliantly sung by Gwen Stewart. The irrelevant “Hand for the Hog” has been deleted, a wise idea that Miller himself considered when first developing the show.
Comedy is capably put over by Troy Kotsur and Erick Devine as con men, who also manage brutally believable transitions to villainy when their scams lead them to sell slaves: The agonized howl from one victim (Stewart) when torn from her daughter, is haunting in its raw reality.
Director Calhoun also stages a tentative, tender interlude of attraction between Huck and Mary Jane Wilkes (Melissa Van Der Schyff), the young woman he protects when her inheritance is temporarily stolen.
Calhoun’s combination of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors is impressively coordinated, a tribute to instinct and professionalism. Michael Gilliam’s faultlessly placed lighting and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound contribute mightily toward the constant clarity between speaker-singers and cast members utilizing sign language.
Holding everything tightly together is musical director-conductor-pianist-arranger Steven Landau, who does full justice to Miller’s lively tunes and tempos.