|A CurtainUp Review
Laura Hitchcock’s fine review of Big River in Los Angeles (after the production notes in this box) needs little to bring it up to date. It has made safe passage to the Great White Way.
Tyrone Giordano & Big River Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Many of the Deaf West Theatre ensemble, including Tyrone Giordano (Huck Finn), Gwen Stewart (Alice), Melissa van der Schyff (Mary Jane Wilkes), as well as Lyle Kanouse and Troy Kotsur (who share the role of Huck’s Pap), have made it intact to Broadway. Two cast additions are particularly memorable. Daniel Jenkins returns as Mark Twain and the voice of Huck, having originated the latter role in the 1985 Tony award-winning production. He anchors the play as its narrator, while complementing Tyrone Giordano’s fluid portrayal of a playful, sprite of a Huck. Michael McElroy steps ably into the oversized shoes of Jim; his is a commanding presence, alternating between powerful restraint and jubilation.
The key to this production’s success is Jeff Calhoun’s direction and his magnificent cast. Calhoun has leveraged his background as a choreographer to transform an already expressive American Sign Language (ASL) into a subtle art form. While we often feel it something of a chore to sit through sub- or super-titles, the use of signing here creates another layer in the piece. In Calhoun’s hands signing is action and makes for compelling storytelling.
Big River’s most poignant moments occur when elements of the hearing and deaf worlds converge: In "Worlds Apart" Jim sings of slavery’s inhumanity to 12-year-old Huck. As the song closes, Jim’s second and third fingers stand atop the back of Huck’s rocking hand, creating the word "ride." The sign is rich in allusion –- signifying both Huck and Jim’s literal rafting down the Mississippi and Jim’s "Freedom Ride."
Signing literally stops the show during the final refrain of "Waitin’ for the Light to Shine." As the ensemble heads into the final stanza of this rousing anthem, their voices abruptly withdraw, and the signing takes center stage.
Big River is Big-Hearted. While it is unexceptional as a text, as manifest in this production, it is a revelation.
ROUNDABOUT PRODUCTION NOTES
BIG RIVER, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller
Book by William Hauptman from Mark Twain's novel.
Direction and choreography by Jeff Calhoun
Cast Michael Arden (Tom Sawyer), Scott Barnhardt (Ben
Rogers/Andy/Robinson/Voice of Young Fool/Voice of Sheriff), Walter Charles (Preacher/Doctor/Voice of Judge/Voice of Hank/Voice of Duke/Voice of Harvey Wilkes), David Damane (Understudy), Christina Dunams (Alice's Daughter),
Gina Ferrall (Widow Douglas/Voice of Sally), Phyllis Frelich (Miss Watson/Sally), Tyrone Giordano (Huckleberry Finn), Dan Jenkins (Mark Twain/Voice of Huck), Lyle Kanouse (Pap/King/Voice of Silas), Rod Keller (Jo
Harper/Lafe/Robinson), Troy Kotsur (Pap/Duke), George McDaniel (Understudy), Michael McElroy (Jim), Ryan Schlect (Dick Simon/Hank/Young Fool/Sheriff Bell), Iosif Schneideman (Judge Thatcher/Harvey Wilkes/Silas/Ensemble), Gwen Stewart (Alice/Voice of Alice's Daughter), Melissa Van Der Schyff (Mary
Jane/Voice of Miss Watson/Voice of Joanna), Alexandria Wailes (Joanna).
Musical director: Steven Landau
Sets: Ray Klausen
Costumes: David R. Zyla
Lights: Michael Gilliam
Music Coordinator - John Miller
Musicians: Conductor/Piano - Steven Landau; Banjo/Guitar/Dobro/Mandolin/Harmonica - Gordon Titcomb; Guitar/Dobro/Banjo/Mandolin - Greg Utzig; Fiddle/Mandolin - Cenovia Cummins;Acoustic Bass - Dave Phillips; Percussion/Dulcimer - Frank Pagano
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. 212/719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org
From 7/01/03; opening 7/24/03; closing 9/21/03.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00PM.
Early-to-Bed Series: 7:00PM curtains on Tuesday, August 12th - Friday, August 15th and Tuesday, August 19th - Saturday, August 23rd.
Ticket prices range from $26.25-$91.25.
OK for ages 8 and up.
Do You Wanna Go To Heaven? / The Company
We Are The Boys/ Tom and the Gang
Waitin' For The Light To Shine / Huck
Guv'ment / Pap
Hand For The Hog / Tom
I, Huckleberry, Me/ Huck
Muddy Water / Jim and Huck
The Crossing / Slaves
River In The Rain/ Huck and Jim
When The Sun Goes Down In The South/ King, Duke, Huck and Jim
The Royal Nonesuch/ Duke, Huck, Hank, Andy, Lafe and Company
- Worlds Apart/ Jim and Hucka
- Arkansas/ Young Fool
- How Blest We Are/ Alice, Alice's Daughter and Company
- You Oughta Be Here With Me/ Mary Jane, Joanna, Donald and Ronald
- How Blest We Are (Reprise)/ Alice, Alice's Daughter
- Leavin's Not The Only Way To Go/ Huck, Mary Jane and Jim
Waitin' For The Light To Shine (Reprise)/ Huck, Alice, Alice's Daughter,
Jim and Company
Free At Last/. Jim and Company
Muddy Water (Reprise) / Huck and Jim
--- Laura Hitchcock's Review at the Mark Taper--
It took Gordon Davidson 35 years to import a production from a small Los Angeles theatre and look what he got for waiting! Something exceptional, something of substance, a blending of large and small theatres and of signing and singing actors,
Big River, the 1985 Tony-award winning musical based on Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, comes to the Taper from Ed Waterstreet's Deaf West Theatre.
Over the past 12 years, Waterstreet has built up his theatre from a small rented space to a 99-seat house. He's done musicals before but this one strikes America's heart, from which it came.
The signing which all the actors do becomes a choreography of communication and, after the initial fascination, becomes no more distracting than the titles over an opera stage. It's also used here to underline the differences between people's situations, as in the case of Huck, a signing actor, and the slave Jim, a singing actor, as well as between two sides of the same person, as in the two sides of Huck's Papp.
When Papp opens the closet door to look at himself in the mirror, he confronts another actor, dressed like him, though several sizes bigger. It's Papp's alcoholism and delirium tremens that makes Huck a runaway again. He collides with another runaway, Jim, a slave who's making a break for freedom in the north.
The two ride a raft down the big river and all goes well until they pick up The King and The Duke, two scalliwags one step ahead of the law. Good-hearted Huck insists on helping them out and only discovers his mistake when they try to rob a trusting Southern family and sell Jim.
Huck struggles with his feelings over Jim's plan to steal back his wife and children. On one hand, he sympathizes with Jim. On the other, he perceives it as stealing someone else's "property." Twain uses the reflections of an uneducated 12-year-old boy in 1876 as a pointed shaft at American racism.
Tom Sawyer turns up and tries to save the day in one of the uniquely American Hero ways, dreaming up a complicated rescue scheme which is bound to be bumbled. Twain runs out of steam at the end, both literally and figuratively, with a deus ex machina ending which Ernest Hemingway described as "just cheating."
It's Jeff Calhoun's direction and choreography, the late Roger Miller's music and lyrics, and the vibrant ensemble that really save the day in this glorious production, aided by William Hauptman's deft book adaptation.
Calhoun amalgamates signing with singing actors by several methods, in some cases doubling roles, as in the case of Papp played by signing and singing actors in tandem, one shadowing the other. More often the singing actors are at one side of the stage. Signing actor Tyrone Giordano plays the major role of Huck with all the gawky naïve mischief and break-for-the-border zest we expect from that character. He is voiced by Tony-winner Scott Waara who also plays Mark Twain and strolls the aisles with banjo or guitar, as he sings or voices Huck. He skillfully segues from Huck to Twain and his lilting tenor interprets the eager American morning quality of the two.
The overpowering voice and deeply sensitive portrayal of Jim by Rufus Bonds, Jr., most recently seen here as Mufasa in The Lion King, bring poignant life to the character who is the focus of this work. Gwen Stewart brings a rich mellow voice and impressive dignity to the role of the slave Alice. Phylllis Frelich, who made history starring in the Taper's 1970 debut of "Children of a Lesser God", makes a waspish Miss Watson. Comedy relief is expressed by Lyle Kanouse as Papp and The King and Troy Kotsur who plays Papp's double and The Duke. Lithe Melissa van der Schyff plays the ingénue Mary Jane who wins Huck's heart, as well as voicing several other roles. The vocal actors win plaudits for their voicing of yapping dogs in a barnyard.
Ray Klausen's scenic design is an essential element in casting the play's successful spell. The backdrop is large manuscript pages of Twain's novel, always keeping us aware of his contribution. A raft becomes center stage on which Huck and Jim escape and the dazzling climax to Act I occurs when the backdrop of the raft turns blue from stage to ceiling, opening up the dream of a limitless blue-sky future to Huck, Jim and the audience.
Music and Lyrics by Roger Miller, Book by William Hauptman, adapted from Mark Twain's novel
Director/Choreographer: Jeff Calhoun
Cast: Chuck Baird (Judge Thatcher, others), Michelle A. Banks (Alice's Daughter, others), Rufus Bonds, Jr. (Slave Jim), Gibby Brand (Preacher, others), Michael Davis (Tom Sawyer, others), Phyllis Frelich (Miss Watson, Sally, others), Tyrone Giordano (Huck), Lyle Kanouse (Papp, King, others), Rod Keller (Voice of Tom, Joe Harper, others), Carol Kline (Widow Douglas, Voice of Sally, others), Troy Kotsur (Papp, Duke, others), Jarret LeMaster (Ben Rogers, others), William Martinez (Voice of Duke, others), Ryan Schlect (Dick Simon, others), Gwen Stewart (Alice, others), Melissa van der Schyff (Voice of Miss Watson, Mary Jane, others), Scott Waara (Mark Twain, Voice of Huck), Alexandria Wailes (Joanna, others)
Musicians: Steven Landau, Conductor, Piano; John David, Tim Christensen, Richard Greene, Scott Higgins
Set Design: Ray Klausen
Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam
Costume Design: David R. Zyla
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Alan
Hair and Wig Design: Carol F. Doran
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission
Running Dates: November 13-December 29, 2002
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand, Los Angeles, Ph: (213) 628-2772
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.November 13.