- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

The film of mediocrity that settled over Ford’s Theatre of late has been lifted with a jubilant production of the musical “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” conceived by Deaf West Theatre. The fluid staging and catchy country-Western score are elevated by a combination of hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, who create a compelling “third language” composed of speech and American Sign Language.

The emphasis on swift movement works marvelously in a show taking place on the Mississippi River, a body of water that means freedom for some of Mark Twain’s characters but death, escape or enslavement to others.

As directed by Jeff Calhoun, this lower-tech staging of “Big River” lacks the thrilling special effects of the Broadway production — which reproduced Huck Finn’s raft in the water, right down to every bump and curve of the current — but it makes up for that with expressive high spirits.

The audience is asked to use its imagination in Ford’s production, which features a multilevel wood set decked out in oversize pages from Twain’s novel. The author himself takes center stage, serving not only as the narrator, but also as the voice of Huck Finn, portrayed by deaf actor Christopher B. Corrigan, a Gallaudet University student.

Bill O’Brien plays the noted wit and character without slipping into parody, giving the impression that he has such fondness for Huck Finn that he cannot resist supplying the voice.

“Big River” details Huck’s escape from his hometown, St. Petersburg, Mo., as he chafes under the loving discipline of Widow Douglas (Elizabeth Greene) and Miss Watson (Linda Bove, with her voice provided by Catherine Brunell). He has far more dire reasons for leaving town, as his drunken and violent Pap (Darren Frazier and Jay Lusteck) is anxious to get his paws on the money found by Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer (Stanley Bahorek) in Injun Joe’s cave.

Huck heads to the river with runaway slave Jim (the Tony-nominated Michael McElroy), who would rather risk capture than be sold to another owner in New Orleans. Huck wrestles with his conscience and his newfound abolitionist stance, proclaiming with boyish naivete that “Jim has the same love for his wife and children that white folks do.”

If it has been a while since you have read “Huckleberry Finn,” what strikes you about the novel — and the musical — is how adult it is. Huck and Jim have lovely adventures on the river, but Huck also has to deal with an abusive father, abandonment, people wanting him around only for his money, racism and exploitation of the young. There also is a heap of lying, scheming, drinking and dying in this novel for youth.

“Big River” handles all these big issues with a sense of expansiveness and acceptance. Life is hard — that’s a given — but there are moments of transcendence and joy. The musical has its share of lively numbers, set to the honky-tonk rhythms of Roger Miller’s score, but considerable beauty can be found in the quieter intervals.

You can feel the camaraderie and awe in the hush when Jim and Huck lie on their backs on the raft, looking up at the stars during the melancholy song “River in the Rain.” A gospel strain runs through stirring songs “The Crossing” and “How Blest We Are,” as the various slaves encounter separation and suffering.

The interaction between the hearing and deaf actors is seamless, with the cast creating a symbiotic relationship between sign language and speech that is mesmerizing. After a while, you sort of forget who has what faculties, a development underscored by a brilliant moment in the song “Waiting for the Light to Shine” when the final chorus is performed solely in sign language.

Mr. Corrigan makes an irascible and impressionable Huck, but he is nearly outshone by the crowing love of high jinks expressed by Mr. Bahorek’s Tom Sawyer.

As Jim, Mr. McElroy creates a finely etched portrait of a man consumed by both freedom and duty. Jay Lusteck and David McLellan have a boisterous good time playing the flimflam men King and Andy. In a play seemingly overpopulated with boys and men, Catherine Brunell strikes a grace note as Mary Jane Wilkes, the kind young woman who steals Huck’s heart.

The 2004-05 season at Ford’s has been well-meaning but plodding. That current has been reversed with this big-hearted and boisterous “Big River.” ***

WHAT: “Big River,” music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 12 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Through May 1.

TICKETS: $25 to $48

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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