Deaf West Theatre and Roundabout Navigate a New Big River to Broadway, July 1

By Ernio Hernandez
01 Jul 2003

Poster art (with the title spelled out in sign language in the clouds) for Big River.
Poster art (with the title spelled out in sign language in the clouds) for Big River.

Deaf West Theatre's revival of Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a unique production using deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, begins previews on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre, July 1.

The Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West present the American Sign Language adaptation in association with the Mark Taper Forum. The limited engagement will open July 24 for a run through Sept. 14.

Jeff Calhoun (Bells Are Ringing, Grease) directs and choreographs the musical — with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman — based on the novel by Mark Twain. Steven Landau returns as musical director.

"What we wanted to do was make the signing the center of the focus and not split focus," Calhoun explained. 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 — and what I hope we're accomplishing — 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."

Deaf West Theatre incorporates deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors in the casts of their musicals and plays. Songs and dialogue are often sung and signed with actors doubling as characters — one speaking and singing and one signing.

Big River was originally produced at the Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, California in 2001 then transfered to the larger Mark Taper Forum in 2002. The staging won six Los Angeles Ovation Awards and five Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Awards including Best Musical for both.

Though Calhoun assured press at a recent rehearsal that he did not set out to make any political statement, but "just wanted to put on a show," he nonetheless found the show took on its own double meanings. The differences between deaf and hearing cultures began to permeate the story as much as the tale's juxtaposing of black and white cultures.

Tyrone Giordano makes his Broadway debut in the role he originated at the Deaf West Theatre and reprised for the Mark Taper Forum run. Voicing the role of Huck and playing Mark Twain is Dan Jenkins — who was Tony nominated for his turn as Huck in the original 1985 production of the Roger Miller-William Hauptman musical.

The Broadway cast of Big River also includes Michael Arden, Scott Barnhardt, Catherine Brunell, Walter Charles, David Aron Damane, Christina Ellison Dunams, Gina Ferrall, Phyllis Frelich, Lyle Kanouse, Rod Keller, Troy Kotsur, Kevin Massey, George McDaniel, Michael McElroy, Drew McVety, Guthrie Nutter, Ryan Schlect, Iosif Schneideman, Gwen Stewart, Melissa Van Der Schyff and Alexandria Wailes.

The design team features Ray Klausen (sets), David R. Zyla (costumes) and Michael Gilliam (lights) and Peter Fitzgerald (sound).

Big River, which debuted at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in 1985, is a musical re-telling of Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," concentrating mostly on Finn's travels with the runaway slave Jim as they float down the Mississippi on a raft. Songs in the score include "Waiting for the Light to Shine," "Guv'ment," "Muddy Water," "River in the Rain," "The Royal Nonesuch," "Worlds Apart," "Leaving's Not the Only Way to Go," "You Ought to Be Here With Me" and "Free At Last."

Tickets for Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the AA Theatre, 227 West 42 Street, are available through (212) 719-1300. For more information, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.