The signing is as startling - and as satisfying - as the singing in "Big River," the affecting revival of the 1985 musical based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
The production, which the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought to Broadway from California's Deaf West Theatre, uses deaf, hard of hearing and hearing actors in what can best be described as a celebration of silence and sound.
In its original incarnation, "Big River" was a Tony-winning musical that ran for over 1,000 performances in New York but never quite got the respect it deserved. William Hauptman's intelligent telescoping of Twain's tale is a model of condensation that doesn't slight the story while retaining the novel's humorously jaundiced view of mankind.
The show's country-flavored score by the late, great Roger Miller (he died in 1992) sounds as vibrant, fresh and funny as it did nearly two decades ago. Miller, the man behind the music and lyrics for such hits as "King of the Road," "Dang Me" and "England Swings," was a shrewd composer who, in his only Broadway musical, knew how to write songs that would have pop appeal and also work well within the context of musical theater.
The hook for this production is the nearly double pairing of actors for each character: one who talks and sings and one who signs. If that idea sounds confusing, it isn't. After a few minutes, double vision gives way to a singular acceptance - two performers acting as one.
Director Jeff Calhoun has done an inventive and sometimes witty job in making sense of this two-by-two casting. In one of the evening's most satisfying theatrical conceits, it's Daniel Jenkins, the actor playing Mark Twain, who also sings and speaks the voice of Huck Finn. Jenkins portrayed Huck in the original Broadway production, so this revival is a homecoming of sorts.
The curly haired Tyrone Giordano, a deaf performer, acts and signs as the boyishly recalcitrant Huck. Giordano has an eager, winning smile, which immediately gets the audience on his side as Huck and the slave Jim (Michael McElroy) run away and head down the Mississippi (the "Big River" of the title) for adventure and freedom.
Huck also takes a personal journey -from the racial bigotry in mid-19th century America to an acceptance of Jim as a human being, more than a piece of personal property.
McElroy has the best voice in the show. It's big and booming, capable of considerable emotion, particularly in his declaration of emancipation - "Free at Last" - and a "duet" with Huck called "Worlds Apart," in which their differences are poignantly noted.
Signing adds a graceful note to these particular songs, unobtrusively underlining their meanings and imparting an extra helping of theatricality to what is happening on stage.
The plot is admittedly episodic, with Huck first battling his unforgiving, alcoholic Pap, robustly impersonated by both Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse, and later getting involved with a couple of scalawags who make a living separating people from their money.
These con men involve Huck in a scheme to get money from a recently orphaned young woman, played by Melissa van der Schyff, who delivers a robust version of the show's most twangy number, "You Oughta Be Here With Me."
The acting gets a little hammy at times, and it's hard to forget the dazzling original Broadway setting by designer Heidi Landesman, which had a backdrop of the Mississippi River snaking to the top of the theater's proscenium arch.
Ray Klausen's new designs utilize giant, parchmentlike pages from the novel to frame the action. It's a little claustrophobic, but when the performers are singing and signing at full throttle, "Big River" seems as expansive as the mighty stream it celebrates so joyously.
"Big River," the 1985 musical version of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," with a score by Roger Miller, was probably not in need of a revival, but the revival it has been given is extremely affecting for reasons having little to do with the show itself.
What makes this "Big River" unusual is that many members of its large cast are deaf.
Both deaf and hearing cast members sign their lines. The deaf actors' parts are also spoken by other actors.
The title role, for example, played by the deaf Tyrone Giordano, is spoken by Daniel Jenkins, who played Huck in the 1985 production.
Shortly into the evening, you no longer notice the strangeness of having everyone moving their hands to sign or the fact that voices sometimes come from other parts of the stage.
The most striking moment comes late in the second act, when the onstage band, which has been playing almost continuously, is suddenly silent, and for about 20 seconds the characters continue to move and sign. The hearing members of the audience suddenly understand what the nonhearing experience all the time.
Originally produced by the Deaf West Theater of Los Angeles, it has been brought to New York by the Roundabout.
Inventively directed by Jeff Calhoun, the show tells Twain's story straightforwardly. Miller's score has a down-home bounce that keeps things moving, though it seldom captures the drama with any precision. Huck and Jim, for example, sing a duet called "Worlds Apart" where the lyrics seem suitable for neither.
The performances add immensely to the evening, particularly that of Michael McElroy, whose singing as Jim is truly impassioned. So is that of Gwen Stewart as a slave whose daughter is about to be sold.
Giordano is an extremely engaging Huck, and Jenkins' voice, singing Huck's songs, seems as fresh as it did in 1985.
The fact that the actors sign keeps the stage constantly alive, though their strenuous efforts to communicate sometimes means the acting falls under the heading of "indicating."
The show works as well as it does because the book on which it is based is so powerful.
It's an unexpected honey.
I'm talking about the revival of the late Roger Miller's 1985 hit "Big River," based on Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn," which opened last night at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre.
So what? Musicals are always being revived, but this no simple revival. It's a completely new approach to the show's casting and staging, for it involves hearing, hearing-impaired and deaf actors.
While all the actors sign their performances, some have their talking and singing done, unobtrusively, by others. It works.
It takes a moment to acclimate yourself - you may look around to see just where the voice is coming from - but then this unusual process simply becomes a kind of alternative universe.
The music has a charming country bounce, with occasional gospel. But Miller, a disciple of Hank Williams, was also a wizard with words, and the songs come out beautifully.
The picaresque story, adroitly adapted by William Hauptman, of Huck, the runaway slave Jim, and their wild adventures on and around the Mississippi, is tricky enough to stage without the added complications of signing. But Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer, has done a marvelous job.
With the contrivance of Ray Klausen, who has devised an ingenious and visually attractive setting of blown-up pages from the novel, and the deliciously simple costumes from David R. Zyla, Calhoun has the show running like a song.
Charismatic performances from Daniel Jenkins as Mark Twain, Tyrone Giordano as the perky Huck and Michael McElroy as a soul-voiced Jim, are picture perfect.
A certain poignancy is added by the 40-year-old Jenkins revisiting "Big River," having played Huck in the original production 18 years ago.
Now, in a seamless bond with Giordano, Jenkins' Twain not only acts as narrator but provides Huck's voice.
That said, the essential joy of this show is in the spirit of its total ensemble.
The big character parts are superbly distributed. Pap - Huck's drunk bully of a father - is given by two actors, Troy Kotsur (deaf) and Lyle Kanouse (hearing) and their dual interplay instantly establishes Calhoun's staging method.
Kotsur and Kanouse then go on to give lively, rapscallion performances of Twain's braggart villains, Duke and King, with Duke's voice meticulously supplied by Walter Charles.
It's a fun evening that Twain himself would have loved, but also a very moving one, in ways that might even have surprised the author.
The most moving moment comes in silence - when the chorus reprises the song "Waitin' for the Light to Shine." Suddenly the orchestra and singing stop while the ensemble continues, for 30 seconds or so, to sign.
Silence envelops the theater - you could hear a pin drop, a heart break. A telling message has been gently delivered.
The music doesn't end when the band stops playing.
There comes a moment in the inventive new revival of ''Big River,'' the 1985 musical based on ''The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' when the twanging country tones of Roger Miller's score go still in the middle of a production number, and the stage is filled with an uncompromising silence. Yet the entire cast is still singing, expressively and expansively. What's more, you can hear the voices, though your ears have nothing to do with the experience. And the melody doesn't just linger; it seems to keep swelling.
This goosebump-making moment has been carefully prepared for in ''Big River,'' which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater. Up to that point, which arrives toward the end of the second act, every number in this show from Deaf West Theater has been simultaneously sung and rendered in American Sign Language -- and so seamlessly that you no longer make a conscious distinction between the two styles of performance.
Then comes the reprise of the musical's spiritual center of a ballad, ''Waitin' for the Light to Shine,'' when the sound, so to speak, is switched off. As the ensemble members noiselessly sign the refrain in perfect synchronicity, you may be surprised to realize that by now you already know the lyrics as they are presented in this form. Those much-quoted words from Keats start to make new sense: ''Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.''
For hearing audience members at least, nothing else in this interpretation of ''Big River'' achieves the magic of that moment of quiet, in which a bridge is crossed into a different realm of perception. But this is by no means to dismiss the considerable achievement of the rest of the show.
Presented by Roundabout Theater Company and Deaf West (in association with the Mark Taper Forum, where the musical was seen last year) and directed by Jeff Calhoun, this adaptation of Twain's epochal account of an American odyssey makes the crucial point that there's more than one way to tell a story and to sing a song. Though the coordination and integration of signed, spoken and sung language are surely a matter of great complexity, you're never allowed to sense the effort.
As a narrative that sticks close to William Hauptman's original adaptation, this production is unfailingly energetic, good-tempered and sparklingly clear. It cannot be said that it makes much of a case for ''Big River'' as a major American musical or does full justice to a great novel that still inspires heated debate.
Like the first Broadway production, which swept the Tony Awards in what was admittedly a dry season, this version doesn't avoid shrinking Twain's multidimensional book into a folksy, tuneful morality lesson, heavy on homilies and inspirational hymns. In some ways this is even more apparent than it was 17 years ago. The show inevitably lacks the diversionary visual impact of the original breathtaking scenery by Heidi Landesman. And much of Miller's lively score, performed by a versatile six-member band, more than ever has the feeling of incidental instead of integral music.
What the Deaf West production wisely emphasizes is the story theater aspect of the show and a sense that the telling of tales can assume many, equally valid forms. Ray Klausen's modestly ingenious set is a wonderland of oversized book pages, with text and illustrations from ''Huckleberry Finn,'' that wind up having all sorts of unexpected uses as they shift and open to frame scenes.
The implicit idea is that the book is being translated before our eyes into live action, which in turn is translated into signed and spoken speech. The role of Twain as the evening's central narrator acquires a newly vital reason to be. Twain (Daniel Jenkins, who played Huck on Broadway in the original production) now also provides the spoken and sung voice of Huckleberry Finn (Tyrone Giordano), who delivers his performance in sign language.
Variations on this teaming of speaking and nonspeaking performers are often inspired. Huck's no-good drunkard of a father is embodied by two actors, Troy Kotsur and Lyle Kanouse (which ties in with observations Huck makes on the duality of his father's nature).
These men serve up what is surely the most fascinatingly linked teamwork in a musical since Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner played Siamese twins in ''Side Show.'' They later show up, to memorable effect, as the swaggering con men who temporarily share (and take over) the raft navigated by Huck and his traveling companion, the runaway slave Jim (the rich-voiced Michael McElroy).
Many of the other cast members also work in symbiotic pairs. (Mr. McElroy and Michael Arden, as a perky Tom Sawyer, both speak and sign their parts.) Such interdependence deepens the show's emotional texture, echoing and enhancing the central relationship between Huck and Jim.
Huck's increasing empathy with Jim, a man he once regarded as only a white man's property, takes on new resonance. By its very form, this ''Big River'' is asking theatergoers, whether hearing or nonhearing, to try to understand the world through an unfamiliar point of view.
It could be argued that the two-level interpretation of every line gives an overly emphatic quality to a show that was not known for understatement to begin with. Yet this heightened demonstrative air should also make the show even more accessible to children than it was before.
Among the singing performers, Mr. McElroy and Gwen Stewart (as a mother whose daughter is sold into slavery) give vibrant accounts of gospel numbers, while Melissa van der Schyff has a Dolly Parton-ish honeyed nasality that is ideally suited to the funeral lament ''You Oughta Be Here With Me,'' a charming bluegrass pastiche that I had forgotten about.
Yet it's the facial and body language of the nonspeaking performers that is most memorably eloquent. Playing several roles, Phyllis Frelich, who won a Tony for ''Children of a Lesser God,'' has a naturally incisive comic piquancy that makes you wish she were seen more often on New York stages. Christina Ellison Dunams radiates a haunted sense of accumulated losses as a slave girl. Mr. Kotsur's Duke conveys barnstorming theatrical grandeur with stiffly squared shoulders and a phony English accent with the pursing of his mouth.
As for Mr. Giordano, he suggests a Caravaggio model who somehow wound up posing for Norman Rockwell, and the contradiction lends a valuable hint of sensuality to the musical's sanitized Huck. It is he who leads that extraordinary reprise of ''Waitin' for the Light to Shine.'' Though its melody builds into evangelical fervor, this is one song you are likely to remember less as you heard it than as you saw it.
It would be tough to imagine a production that's easier to root for, or more difficult to pan, than the revival of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn(* * 1/2) that opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre.
This new take on Roger Miller and William Hauptman's 1985 adaptation of Mark Twain's novel is founded on the daring and endearing notion that a musical can be accessible to those who can't hear music. Conceived by the Deaf West Theatre and co-presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company, it brings deaf, hearing-impaired and hearing actors together in an attempt to broaden Twain's message about the dangers of ignorance and prejudice and the hopes and fears that bind all people, regardless of superficial differences.
If this noble goal isn't fully realized, it's no discredit to the immensely appealing cast assembled by director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, led by deaf actor Tyrone Giordano as Huck and Michael McElroy as Jim, the runaway slave whom he befriends. Giordano, like other deaf performers, uses sign language while another actor speaks and sings his role, while McElroy, like his hearing colleagues, employs signing.
This strategy seems especially poignant in the context of Huck and Jim's relationship, lending new meaning to Miller songs such as Worlds Apart, a contemplation on racial injustice that here also reflects how the disabled are alienated. There is a lovely rapport between Giordano's energetic Huck and McElroy's haunted but robust-voiced Jim.
Unfortunately, that resonance doesn't extend to all interaction in the show. The integration of sign language would appear to pose many creative possibilities, but Calhoun's choreography, while resourceful, isn't particularly imaginative. Some ensemble numbers evoke school recitals, with performers dutifully motioning in fastidious unison. Deaf actors are allowed to be more expressive as individuals, but the staging often forces them to compete with the similarly animated players providing voices for them.
A number of fine performances do emerge. Daniel Jenkins, who played Huck in the original Big River in 1985, doubles as a crisp Mark Twain while giving a playful voice to Giordano's Huck. Michael Arden is an adorably spry Tom Sawyer, while Gwen Stewart sings and emotes powerfully as the slave Alice.
Among the deaf actors, Troy Kotsur offers a wry, wily turn as a conniving stranger and is also affecting as Huck's troubled father. Christina Ellison Dunams brings a plaintive grace to the part of Alice's daughter.
The performers' talents and courage help mitigate the sentimental currents in Big River, and ensure that this production, despite its flaws, never sinks entirely.
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.