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'Big River' dazzles with sight, sound

With a spirit as expansive and free-flowing as the great Mississippi itself, the Deaf West Theatre production of ''Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" fills the Wang Theatre with a joyous, buoyant journey toward freedom. As Huck and Jim sign and sing their way down the river and up from ignorance and oppression, they lift our hearts along with theirs toward the beckoning big sky.

''Big River" seemed an unlikely proposition at first; how could Mark Twain's ''Huckleberry Finn," in all its sprawling genius, become a musical? But William Hauptman's book and Roger Miller's piercingly lovely and varied songs did the trick, and made it look natural -- as natural as this deaf-theater adaptation of the musical, unlikely as it also seemed, proves to be.

What makes it work is the seamless integration of sound and sight. The strong ensemble includes both deaf and hearing performers; expertly directed by Jeff Calhoun, the hearing performers voice and sign their lines, and the deaf ones sign while their lines are voiced by other actors, unobtrusively placed in various ways onstage. Far from distracting us, this blend of languages deepens the great themes not only of ''Big River" but of Twain's original masterpiece: the barriers that divide us, whether race or class or ability, and the ways we break down those barriers to embrace our common humanity.

Michael McElroy's Jim is magnificent, with a glorious voice and a commanding presence. Deaf actor Tyrone Giordano pairs well with him as the wild but educable Huck. Their duets, especially the plangent ''Worlds Apart," both illuminate their relationship and fit Calhoun's repeated use of twinning, mirroring, and doubling characters to reflect on Twain's divided world.

Among the solid cast, Gwen Stewart's powerful but nuanced gospel singing stands out. Daniel Jenkins does yeoman duty: Besides voicing Giordano's Huck, he's onstage the whole night as Twain, observing, narrating, and commenting on the action. And he plays a mean banjo, not to mention harmonica and guitar.

One glaring defect last night was in the sound, with several songs muffled by the Wang's weird and awful acoustics. The problem seemed particularly acute at center stage, but it cropped up all over. Fortunately, it didn't affect McElroy's finest moment, Jim's yearning dream of liberation, hauntingly sung and elegantly signed, in ''Free At Last."

Other technical aspects were fine, from David R. Zyla's almost-too-opulent costumes to Michael Gilliam's inventive lights. Ray Klausen's set is a marvel. Giant sepia pages of the novel open up to become doorways, peel back to reveal a cave, or flip down to form a bed or, of course, a raft. And when that raft first carries Huck and Jim down the river, the pages glide back to become its banks. A great, glowing stripe of blue rises up behind the raft, and the way it is at once river and sky and freedom and the whole world opening up before them just takes your breath away. If you've ever wondered just what makes live theater so special, go take a look at that.

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