Nancy Barber (nlbarber) wrote,
Nancy Barber

Big River, the musical

Saw the summer touring production of Deaf West Theatre's Big River yesterday. If this show is headed your way, Go See It.

Big River is a musical based on Huckleberry Finn, with music and lyrics by country singer/songwriter Roger Miller. The show had a 1985 Broadway run and got 7 Tony nominations. This production is a 2003 revival that began in Sacramento, CA with Deaf West Theatre, and then went to Broadway. The touring company is a cut above what Atlanta usually sees--lots of the cast were in the Broadway revival.

What makes this a really remarkable show, though, is the blending of deaf and hearing-impaired actors and hearing ones, and making it all work in a musical. All the roles are signed--if the actor is deaf, then there is another actor who speaks the role for him. This is staged in a number of ways. Most often, the deaf actor is spotlighted, while the speaking actor is on-stage, in costume as a minor player, and turned away from the audience. For Huck, the speaking and singing was done by the actor playing Mark Twain (Daniel Jenkins, who played Huck in the 1985 production). So "Mark Twain" was on-stage throughout most of the show, stepping in occasionally as the narrator or to comment about writing the book, the rest of the time observing the action (as writers do). When he spoke or sang for Huck, he'd move to the side and face away from the audience, so attention was on the real Huck.

Most fun was the way they handled Pap, Huck's father who appears to try and take custody of Huck and his money. Pap gets into Huck's bedroom at the Widow Douglas's, and talks about how educated and refined Huck is getting--why, he even has a mirror (swings a door open in the set, revealing another actor dressed as Pap). They do a standard mirror-play, then Pap 1 turns away from the mirror to walk towards Huck, and Pap 2 follows. From then on they are near twins--one drinks from a jug (the speaking one, as he had his hands free) and the other wipes his mouth with his sleeve. One gets hit with the frying pan, and both go down. Well played for laughs, and incredibly well timed.

Other great touches: the choreography for the songs was built around the signs--it was not intrusive at all to my "hearing" experience, in fact quite the contrary. The first big production number, "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven", where the group of townspeople are lecturing Huck about the need to go to school and read the Bible, made good use of the brief touch that someone gives a deaf person so they will look at them before beginning to sign. Poor Huck is sandwiched in between the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, who alternate touching him to get his attention (maybe "whapping him" would be more accurate).

I could rave on and on, but the bottom line is you need to see this production.

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