Though Mark Twain's book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a catalyst for heated PTA meetings, classroom protests and the occasional fistfight, a revival of the musical version, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, tries its darnedest to bring people together. Both tell the now well-worn story of young Huck Finn (the prototypical rebel without a cause), his friend Jim (a runaway slave) and their journey down the Mississippi River toward freedom. This version, Deaf West Theatre's revival of the 1985 original, played Broadway and won seven Tony Awards in what was considered to be a weak year. But, more important, it approaches the oft-bromidic original in a new and inclusive way: by using deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors.
Theatrical experiences, especially those of the musical variety, are often muddled--if not completely inaccessible--for those with hearing problems. But this Big River attempts to provide a show that deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences can enjoy just as much as their hearing compatriots, weaving together spoken English, American Sign Language, music, dance and other storytelling techniques.
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Rather than sticking a sign language interpreter on the side of the stage as most shows do during special designed-for-the-deaf performances, Big River makes sign language part of the show, thematically, symbolically and, well, really coolly. All songs are sung as well as signed. The role of Huck Finn is played by deaf actor Tyrone Giordano, who also performed the role during the show's 2003 Broadway revival. At the times when Huck would normally be singing or speaking, Giordano signs his words while Daniel Jenkins, playing the author-turned-narrator Mark Twain, gives them voice. The melding of singing and signing is even used to demonstrate aspects of the characters themselves. Pap, Huck's abusive drunkard of a father, is played by two perfectly synchronized men--one signing, one singing--a tactic that provides a visual representation of the duality of the character's nature. And whether intentionally or not, Big River's depiction of the relationship between a white boy and a black man can be seen as a metaphor for communication between the hearing and deaf worlds: difficult, but not impossible. Nothing like some good Sesame Street-esque moral inferences to whet your appetite for a night at the theater.