: The musical Big River caused a undeserved hoedown among desperate Tony voters looking for a show to honor in the notably poor 1984-85 season (it won for Best Musical). Truth to tell, William Hauptman’s book takes a crude, Classics Illustrated approach to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a score made of jaunty of often irrelevant banjo pickings by King-of-the-Road Roger Miller. My heart sank at the prospect of a Big River revival, featuring a mix of deaf and hearing actors, but how wrong I was. The Roundabout Theatre Company production (coming to us via the Deaf West Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, both of Los Angeles), as directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, is both skillful and heartfelt.
The casting makes all the difference: Huck is played by the gifted (and deaf) Tyrone Giordano, whose unerring instinct for the right movement and/or facial expression makes him a compulsively watchable performer. His teamwork with Daniel Jenkins, who, as Mark Twain, acts as narrator and who also provides Huck’s voice, is a remarkable piece of theatrical symbiosis. (It’s even more touching when you realize that Jenkins created the role of Huck in the original Big River). Equally good is Michael McElroy as Jim, the runaway slave who travels with Huck; when all three performers deliver the song “Muddy Water,” there’s electricity in the air. The role of Huck’s drunken, abusive Pap is similarly cast (with Troy Kotsour and Lyle Kanouse), with similar results; there’s also fine work from Walter Charles as several assorted scamps and Phylls Frelich as a pair of old biddies, Melissa van Der Schyff as Mary Jane Wilkes (who briefly captures Huck’s heart) and Michael Arden, who adds a note of screwball hilarity as Tom Sawyer (although why did they cut Tom’s charming number “A Hand for the Hog”?) Calhoun’s staging is filled with lovely grace notes, especially, the by-now celebrated moment in the song “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” which builds to a sudden, unexpected climax as the cast signs the lyrics in silence.
Ray Klausen’s scenic concept, a construct of pages from Twain’s novel that serve as walls, doorways, and portals, is a sold, ingenious piece of work; it’s not his fault that it is eclipsed by the memory of Heidi Ettinger’s stunning originals, in which the Mississippi River seemed to flow off the stage and into forever. But David R. Zyla’s costumes are truly gorgeous, a lineup of august, bell-shaped ladies’ dresses; high-waisted men’s suits; beautifully distressed rags for the poor folk, and a wild outfit for the appearance of The Royal Nonesuch, the fake hermaphrodite cooked up by the King and the Duke, the con men who take up with Huck. Michael Gilliam’s lighting uses the set’s “pages” as a reflective surface for a warm, colorful palette that blends pastels with deeper tones. Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design plays a key role here, matching the voices of hearing actors with the deaf actors for whom they speak. I never thought I find myself recommending a production of Big River but Roundabout’s gamble has paid off, providing us all with a surprise summer hit.--David Barbour