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Translating Twain's tale into a musical even the deaf can enjoy

Wednesday, Jun 23 2004
A musical based on Huckleberry Finn was inevitable. Mark Twain couldn't hope to escape the attention of Broadway, and Big River did well enough with critics when it premiered in 1985; it's not half as cheesy as you might expect. The surprising part of this revival -- the absolutely bizarre and unpredictable thing, for a musical based on Twain, a master of American speech -- is that it uses deaf actors and gracefully incorporates a sign-language translation of almost every line.

"What's the point?" you might ask. A musical for deaf people? Musicals aren't for deaf people. Why subject an irreverent novel like Huck Finn to the blustery reverence of Broadway, only to translate it painstakingly into American Sign Language, for the sake of people who can -- and should! -- just borrow the damn book from the library and enjoy the sound of Huck's voice as Twain set it down on paper?

There are moments, sure enough, when you wish everyone involved in Big River could have left well enough alone, from William Hauptman (who wrote the book) to Roger Miller (lyrics and music) to L.A.'s Deaf West Theatre, which first mounted an ASL version of the show in 2001. Giant blowups show pages from a first edition of the novel, a bit too reverentially, and an actor who barely resembles Mark Twain wanders around in a mustache and white suit, smoking a cigar. "It's about a social outcast named Huckleberry Finn," he explains, like a schoolmarm.

But then Huck comes on, in the person of Tyrone Giordano, a young deaf actor who never says a word. He signs his dialogue and songs while Daniel Jenkins, playing Twain, talks and sings. The man in the white suit becomes a kind of puppeteer, and you all but forget him. Giordano is a physically riveting actor; Jenkins' corn-pone Huck voice casts a spell (Jenkins played Huck on Broadway in 1985); and the show is oddly absorbing.

Twelve other members of the sprawling cast have dialogue but never say a word; in each case a "voice" actor comes on to help perform. This method, coupled with the sign language, adds a lot of stage business to the show, which director/ choreographer Jeff Calhoun and his assistant, Coy Middlebrook, have mitigated with rhythmic movement and clever casting. Huck's father, for example, is played by the deaf Troy Kotsur. He sprouts a twin, played by Erick Devine, when he looks into a mirror. The conceit works because Huck describes his father as a split personality -- Pap drunk and Pap sober. Both look like Rocky Mountain fur trappers, with fringed buckskin suits and tangled hair, and they perform an uproarious dirty-blues complaint called "Guv'ment," with Kotsur signing and Devine singing, both of them hopping around like Natty Bumppo on amphetamines. Weird, but fun.

The main prop for the show is Michael McElroy, as Jim. Without an effective runaway slave, any version of the book would collapse, and it would be all too easy for a Broadway actor to ruin Jim by playing him as a big-budget cartoon, all bug-eyed and dumb. But McElroy, who's not deaf, makes him solid, simple, and compelling. He sings in a soaring gospel voice that gives Jim dignity without making him sound oversophisticated. When Jim and Huck set off on the raft at the end of the first scene, the rave-up "Muddy Water" might have become oversweet in the throat of another singer, but McElroy makes it infectious. "Look out for me, oh muddy water," he sings. "Your mysteries are deep and wide" -- and even Huck Finn purists will admit that this strange musical has captured some essence of the novel.

Other songs don't work. "Worlds Apart," a sad duet by Jim and Huck, and even "Waitin' for the Light to Shine," Huck's theme, indulge in the sentimentality it was Twain's greatness to avoid. Kotsur and Devine reunite in different costumes as the Duke and King, respectively -- a pair of ex-jailbird con artists who double-cross Jim and Huck -- but their "Royal Nonesuch" routine feels tired. "We Are the Boys," by Tom Sawyer and friends, is just silly. The closer Miller's music sticks to its roots, the better: Pure blues, gospel, and country songs work a power the processed Broadway numbers lack. Steven Landau's Big River Band (of mostly fiddles and guitars) holds up every tune, inspired or not; Gwen Stewart sings a couple of beautiful gospel solos in "The Crossing" and "How Blest We Are."

The unspoken point of a sign-language Big River is to ease the outcast status of deaf people by showing that even they can put on a Broadway musical. Their cause falls short of Jim and Huck's -- the epic parallel with slavery doesn't quite fly -- but the show is still a success. Calhoun and Middlebrook's nimble choreography and clever vision give deaf actors a taste of the Promised Land.


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