Even if you speak only one language when you step into Ford's Theatre these days, you'll come out well versed in two.
Your new second language is American Sign, which is employed with a touching panache in Deaf West Theatre's inspiring reinvention of "Big River," the folksy musical adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The show, performed by a cast of hearing and deaf actors whose styles are imaginatively blended by director Jeff Calhoun, is ideal for parents in search of an enriching night out with the kids. And there's the added appeal of providing audiences with a feel for the poetic physicality of a form of communication that some may view only as the outgrowth of a handicap.
The cast of "Big River" makes the musical meaningful to both hearing and deaf audience members.
(T. Charles Erickson -- Ford's Theatre)
"Big River" is not a great musical, but it's an altogether decent one, with some ebullient songs by Roger Miller, composer of the '60s pop standard "King of the Road." Some of the ingredients are poured in unevenly. Mark Twain's piquant humor is not always apparent in William Hauptman's script, and all that gleaming Heartland innocence does become a tad tiresome. Some of the strain might have been alleviated by judicious cuts in a production that runs 2 hours and 40 minutes. Dialogue-heavy scenes, especially a second-act sequence involving the scamming of a bereaved family, cry out for trimming.
Still, Miller's music saves the day. Invigorated by indigenous forms like bluegrass and spirituals, the score brims with milk-fed American vitality. Songs such as "Muddy Water," "Free at Last" and "How Blest We Are" shimmer and soar at Ford's, where, for once, the amplification is just right. The singers, most notably Jeannette Bayardelle, Bill O'Brien and the majestically talented Michael McElroy, the last playing runaway slave Jim, infuse the numbers with a powerful sense of soul.
The evening's chief fascination, though, is its breakthrough technique, the way the narrative for those who can hear exists in tandem with one for those who cannot. Having premiered on Broadway 20 years ago in a more conventional production, the musical is now a showcase for magically malleable storytelling. (Deaf West, based in Los Angeles, unveiled this version in 2001, and the troupe has toured it on and off ever since.) Given Twain's own abundant gifts as showman and raconteur, it seems more than fitting to use one of his classics to blaze new narrative trails.
To watch, for instance, as a young hearing-impaired actor, Andres Otalora, translates the song "Arkansas" into crisply expressive bursts of gesture is to discover that there is music to be mined in the silences between the words.
Calhoun's "Big River" divvies up the parts in a spirit of cooperation. You are constantly being shown the manner in which two disparate worlds can be made one. For instance, McElroy, a hearing actor, plays his scenes on the raft with a deaf Huck (Christopher B. Corrigan, a student at Gallaudet University). While McElroy signs and sings his role, Huck's vocals are supplied by O'Brien, who also plays Twain, perched onstage as the omniscient, banjo-plucking narrator.
On Ray Klausen's multilevel set, whimsically adorned with blown-up pages from the novel, this type of pairing occurs throughout the evening. The show even devises its own notion of role-sharing. Huck's snarling hillbilly father, Pap, is played simultaneously by identically costumed actors, one hearing (Jay Lusteck) and one nonhearing (Darren Frazier), who collaborate nicely on Pap's Twainian, contrarian rant, "Guv'ment." The two actors are paired again later to good effect as the riverside con men Duke (Frazier) and King (Lusteck).
Calhoun is also credited as choreographer, but most of the synchronized movement occurs above the waist. When the ensemble signs during "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven," unison takes on a whole new depth of feeling. This idea reaches its apotheosis in the company reprise of "Waitin' for the Light to Shine." Halfway through the number, the seven-piece band suddenly stops playing, and the actors continue to sign the song in utter silence. In this brief, breath-stopping interlude, you suddenly find yourself able to listen to dancing fingers.
Competing with speaking actors for an audience's attention, the deaf performers have the toughest challenge. An audience may feel for a time that Corrigan's Huck is a distant figure, particularly because he has to share the stage with McElroy's dynamic and moving Jim. But Corrigan's presence and performance grow as the evening progresses. By the curtain call he's managed to create a distinct Huck, one who absorbs the lessons Twain imparts here, about seeing past superficial differences and understanding something new about the universal human quest for respect and dignity.
Which, of course, Calhoun's "Big River" doubly reinforces. Catherine Brunell and Stanley Bahorek deserve mention here too as a girl who stirs new feelings in Huck, and Twain's legendary rascal, Tom Sawyer.
But the real standout is the idea that theater still has the power to lead by imaginative will, that communities cut off from each other can be shown how to sing with one voice and a flurry of hands.
Big River, music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Set, Ray Klausen; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; costume coordinator, Lynn Bowling; musical director, Nick DeGregorio. With Walter Charles, Linda Bove, Elizabeth Greene, Christopher Bloch, Michelle A. Banks. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through May 1 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Call 202-347-4833 or visit www.fordstheatre.org.