| Mark Twain
New York, Aug. 20 (Reuters): For the first time, a musical featuring deaf performers is being staged on Broadway, and the show — a revival of Big River based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — is drawing big crowds.
All the lines and songs are both voiced and conveyed in sign language in the production which stars deaf actor Tyrone Giordano as Huck and Broadway veteran Michael McElroy as runaway slave Jim.
The pioneering mixture of hearing and deaf actors sails along thanks to precise planning and abundant talent in a show that also bucked theatrical currents by moving eastward from Los Angeles after first being staged at the 66-seat Deaf West Theater and then at the Mark Taper Forum.
All the actors sign their lines, adding another level of choreography to the experience, and deaf performers have their dialogue and songs voiced unobtrusively by other members of the ensemble in a show that seamlessly weaves together the world of the hearing and non-hearing.
“Without ever betraying strain, the show integrates signed, spoken and sung language into a sparklingly clear, energetic retelling of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn,” said The New York Times. Considered a masterpiece of American literature, the book tells the story of Huck and Jim’s flight down the Mississippi river on a raft and their adventures along the way.
The show, with songs by the late pop star Roger Miller, was a surprise hit 18 years ago winning seven Tony Awards including best musical, best score and best book. This revival, with seven deaf actors among the cast of 18, is bound to garner its own share of Tony attention after its limited run till September 14.
It is not the first show on Broadway to incorporate the deaf. The play Children of a Lesser God, which won several Tony Awards in 1980, featured a deaf character. It was later made into a movie and actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, won an Oscar for her role in it.
Giordano said performing at the 728-seat American Airlines Theater was an unimagined thrill. “To be on Broadway is fantastic. It’s something I never dreamed of,” he said.
True to Twain, the musical explores relationships between Whites and Blacks, young and old, men and women, and is enriched by the unity formed by the deaf and hearing.
“There is the message of how despite all those differences people can be friends, people can build a friendship together,” said McElroy, whose Broadway credits include Rent.
Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun designed a production that treats the hearing and deaf cultures as equal.
“It is a ride you get on,” said McElroy. “For the hearing actors to stay focused and get all these signs down, for the non-hearing actors to stay in the internal rhythm that you have to keep in the show to stay connected with the person who is speaking for you.”
Word is spreading about the show. It played to less than three-quarters capacity in its final week of previews in July, but is now playing to houses more than 90 per cent full.
The logistics of the production are difficult to manage.
“The cueing system is as much a ballet as what you’re seeing on stage,” said Calhoun, who directed the revival of Grease on Broadway and has steered Big River since its start at north Hollywood’s Deaf West Theater in 2001.
Lights from offstage cue deaf actors to entrances. Other visuals, such as gestures or a piece of scenery moving, cue actors for their lines. The production limits putting props in the actors’ hands so they keep them free for signing.
Providing the voice for Huck is Dan Jenkins, who also plays the role of Twain, narrator of the story. Jenkins, who starred as Huck and won a Tony nomination in the 1985 production, lends spoken and singing voice to much of the show from the shadows.
“You have to be a very, very generous actor to do that,” Calhoun said of Jenkins. “But that’s true of everyone on stage. A deaf actor has to be generous enough to allow a hearing actor to supply them with the voice. The hearing actor has to be willing to stand with his back to the audience.”
Paul Mitchell, head of New York's American Sign Language Institute, said through an interpreter that in Big River two people become one actor in a show of total unity.