Thursday, December 02, 2004

Big River (Playhouse Square Center)

‘BIG RIVER’ flows triumphantly at the Palace

Billed as a celebration of silence and sound, ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, is a unique and entertaining experience.

Using deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, the show, which had a recent on Broadway production, was developed by The Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West.

Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN’ is a tale of adventure and self-discovery. It takes the audience on a trip down the Mississippi River in the 1840s on a raft where Huck, escaping from his drunken father, is traveling with Jim, a runaway slave. The story of their journey captures the rhythms, sounds and spirit of life on the big river. Their adventures bring to life Tom Sawyer, the Widow Douglas, the sinister Pap Finn and Mary Jane Wilkes- the love of Huck’s life.

As Jeff Calhoun, who directs and choreographs the musical states, “The tradition of theatre for deaf audiences places an interpreter on the side of the stage, forcing the eye away from the physical drama. What I tried to accomplish is a marriage of the hearing world and the deaf culture. Every moment of the show is both signed and spoken. I didn't want there to be one moment in the show that favored the hearing audience or the deaf audience."

How does Calhoun accomplish this? The hearing actors sing and speak their lines and use American Sign Language (ASL) to accompany their performance. For example, Shaker Heights native Michael McElroy, who portrays the role of Jim, both speaks and sings. On the other hand, Tyrone Giordano, who was born deaf, portrays Huck, but his singing and speaking voice is provided appropriately by Mark Twain (in the person of Daniel Jenkins). Giordano makes no attempt to do a lip sink, but signs as his lines are presented. What makes it totally involving is that Giordano, as is the case of all the deaf cast members, moves his hands in perfect time to the music. He actually sings with his hands.

Director Calhoun has intentionally made it obvious when someone is projecting for another actor. The person stands next to, or is spotlighted on a balcony or a platform. No hiding here, no need to even look for the person. As the synchronized ballet of speaking and signing are interwoven with the music, the dancing and the storytelling a "third language" is created which the audience has no trouble in understanding and embracing.

The Tony winning music for the show, which is a mix of Cajun, gospel, folk, country and blues songs was written by Grammy Award winner Roger Miller, one of the great country singer-songwriters. The score includes “Do You Want to Go To Heaven,” “Waiting for the Light To Shine,” “Hand for the Hog,” “Muddy Water,” “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” and “Worlds Apart.”

The touring production is top-notch in every aspect. Ray Klausen’s ingenious set design allows the audience to participate as the raft floats down the river, often transfer to land, and returns to the flow of the river. Pages of the Mark Twain novel are hung from the fly gallery, stand on the stage, and sometimes even turn for us to gain a view of what is happening. Michael Gilliam’s lighting design helps lead the eye to the proper place on stage to view the center of the action.

The singing, dancing and acting are perfectly keyed. McElroy makes his local fans proud with his big well-tuned voice, engaging acting and total grasp of the character of Jim. Giordano makes Huck a delightful combination of a free-spirit who marches to a different drummer while having a strong moral core. Jenkins is believable as both Twain and the singing and speaking voice of Huck. The supporting cast is of equal quality.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN’ is a wonderful theatrical experience. The show itself is a joy, but this particular production, incorporating the hearing and the deaf performers in a seamless manner, makes it even more special. THIS IS A MUST SEE PRODUCTION!