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It’s easy to mistake Big River for just another fluff musical based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After all, its jazzy ragtime and grassy folk tunes seem simple enough, and the classic American novel about the only boy who will help his friend Jim to free territory is well-tread material in public schools across the country. But Ford’s Theatre’s magical co-production with Los Angeles’ Deaf West Theatre is anything but ordinary. Under the direction and choreography of Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, a cast of hearing and deaf actors work in tandem, performing the entire production in American Sign Language (ASL). In a rather miraculous way, such ingenious pairing supplies voices to the voiceless and music to those unable to hear it. Yet the mouth of Big River is anything but silent.
Rollin’ on the river: Corrigan (front) with cast
(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
In a production rife with talent of the audible and inaudible variety, the music of Roger Miller is given stellar treatment from singers who dazzle and deaf actors who outshine his catchy melodies and lyrics. Bill O’Brien introduces himself early on as narrator Mark Twain, who also lends a voice to his hero Huck, played with great physical comedy by local Gallaudet student Christopher Corrigan. Corrigan and O’Brien forge an ideal match, with O’Brien masterfully strumming his banjo and singing “I, Huckleberry Me ” while Corrigan climbs up an imaginary tree. The scenery, as designed by Ray Klausen, features larger-than-life pages ripped from Twain’s book, and a wide raft complemented by Michael Gilliam’s bright blue lighting for Huck and Jim’s journey downstream.
With Peter Fitzgerald’s flawless sound design — no small feat with Ford’s cavernous acoustics — numbers such as “Muddy Water ” and “The Royal Nonesuch ” have never sounded better, while Jeannette Bayardelle’s effortless rendition of “How Blest We Are ” nearly stops the show. But without doubt, Michael McElroy’s Jim is the show’s irrefutable star, guiding Miller’s gorgeous “Worlds Apart ” and a breathtaking version of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine. ” McElroy offers deep, luxurious kisses to each of his musical notes, culminating in an irresistible affair that trumps the production’s unique approach with ASL (as well as his fellow castmates) with unbelievably rich, full vocals.