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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (adapted from Mark Twain)
Roger Miller and William Hauptman
Big River won seven Tony
Awards for its New York production, including best musical and best score. Now, it bursts
forth again on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in a spirited collaboration of the Center Theater Group
and Deaf West Theatre. If you are
wondering how a group of actors half of whom are deaf handle a lively musical, rest
assured they do it splendidly. Both the hearing and the deaf actors sign and other actors
speak and sing for the deaf actors. For example, Huck (Tyrone Giordano) is deaf but his
voice is that of Scott Waara. Waara,
meanwhile, starts out as the guitar playing Mark Twain, as narrator; his transition to the
voice of Huck gives the added suggestion that the issues Huck tries to sort out--bigotry,
morality, slavery--are issues that Twain himself was grappling with. Mostly it works very well and, for a hearing
audience, signing becomes more like punctuation or, perhaps, dance. In the musical context it works; all the
additional onstage movement makes sense.
The music by renowned country songwriter Roger Miller (King of the Road) is the perfect Americana accompaniment to Huck's classic tale. Infused with gospel, as well as country, it is accessible, spirited and pleasant if somewhat generic. No tune sticks in the mind though the production's feeling does. The outstanding gospel singing by Rufus Bonds Jr., as Jim, the runaway slave (he was just seen as Mufasa in the Los Angeles production of The Lion King), is the exception.
The set keeps the literary source of Big River in the forefront. Large pages from Huckleberry Finn are hung at various angles to the stage. At times they open and characters literally step out of the pages. Huck and Jim's raft is abstracted as a platform against a vivid blue-lit backdrop--simple concepts, but very effective.
At this time Los Angeles is awash in productions that are derivative of tried and true classic works. Whether or not this suggests a paucity of new material, or a renewed reverence for the old, this production is thoroughly entertaining and not without substance. There is no denying that seeing hearing impaired and totally deaf actors working so effectively with hearing actors is an uplifting experience. It's easy to forget that these are voices from other actors who are miked and loses track of who is hearing impaired and who is not; it is simply good theater. The audience response is more enthusiastic than seen in ages at the Taper.
When a final signed chorus of "Waiting for the Light to Shine" is performed in total silence, the hearing audience gets a small taste of what it is like to be unable to hear in a world full of chattering people moving to an invisible beat. This is a production that appeals across generations and provides historical and philosophical content for ongoing discussion.
December 15, 2002 - Karen Weinstein