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Raft of hope on the 'Big River'

November 15, 2002|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

Maybe the Mark Taper Forum has rocked and rolled harder than it did at the Wednesday night opening of Deaf West Theatre's production of "Big River" but if so, I missed it. Fueled by the show-stopping voices of Rufus Bonds Jr., as the runaway slave Jim, and Gwen Stewart, as the captured slave Alice, this revival of the 1985 Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" at times shook the Taper like a gospel church to the sound of Roger Miller's powerful country spirituals about freedom denied and regained in Mark Twain's racially divided America.

The show marks the first time in its 35-year history that the Taper has imported a play or musical from a smaller Los Angeles theater. In doing so with Deaf West Theatre, the Taper has reconnected with one of its own previous landmarks, Gordon Davidson's 1979 staging of Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," which carried the subject of deafness on to Broadway and around the world. Phyllis Frelich, the deaf star of that production, is also part of this one, playing the parts of Miss Watson and Aunt Sally.

This revival of "Big River," directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, is not about deafness but incorporates American Sign Language into a hybrid form of narrative that deftly mingles speaking actors with signing ones, doubling some parts and voicing others from offstage or through another character.

If it sounds odd, it's not. From the opening scene when Scott Waara, as Mark Twain, struts out in period coat and bow tie and begins to speak for Tyrone Giordano, the deaf actor portraying Huck, we get an enduring double vision of the author and his literary creation joined onstage. With the aid of body microphones, Waara and others in the cast are able inconspicuously to provide the words for deaf actors who are simultaneously signing their speeches.

It's a contrivance, but a contrivance that quickly becomes secondary to the historic tale unfurling on the imagined Mississippi, and once we see that the hearing actors are also signing, a bond is built that unites the ensemble in a way that only echoes the central bond between Huck and Jim.

Indeed, the added art of sign language and the overcoming of human frailty it represents can be said to underscore the deeply felt emotion of Huck's loss of innocence and Jim's dreams of being reunited with his wife and children.

There are many moments to sing about in this "Big River," but its greatest single image may be the stunning Act I tableau of Jim on the raft, his back to the audience, standing and staring into the looming blue screen of the river and the sky and the future all joined in a timeless prospect of possibility, to the sound of American guitars. I think Mark Twain himself might have choked up at the sight.

The show's scenic design, by Ray Klausen, is most effective for its simple but nonetheless ingenious creation of the raft on the river, with movement suggested by the apparent sliding away of riverbank as the raft heads upstage in an illusion created by a change in depth perception.

The primary set, however, is one that emphasizes the story's literary origins: oversized pages of Twain's text scattered here, there and everywhere, including the floor and the ceiling. Some of the pages flip open, revealing actors who leap to life from a book. This works well most of the time, but during the night scene when Huck and Jim lie on their backs and stare at the stars and speculate about the makings of the universe, the heavenly canopy itself is unfortunately blocked by the pages. Perhaps this is making an artistic point. Perhaps not.

The book, which we tend to forget was published to great consternation in 1884, is a blend of barbed, satirical observations of some lesser aspects of American civilization and a heartfelt reckoning with the legacy of slavery. Reinvented as a musical, with a book by William Hauptman, it carries a bit more uplift and oomph than Twain's original episodic novel, but, again, in this revival, manages not to seem false to his broader purpose.

The daring friendship between young Huck and slave Jim lends itself to musical interpretation, and that bond is beautifully re-imagined in the late Miller's very American songs, here sung with ringing bass-noted authority by Bonds and a suitably higher-pitched boyish counterpoint by Waara, strolling up into the aisles with guitar and banjo while his lyrics are acted onstage by Giordano.

Waara won a Tony for his role as Herman in the Broadway revival of "Most Happy Fella" and cuts a fine figure as Twain. But Bonds, who comes to the show straight from his role as Mufasa in "The Lion King" at the Pantages, is absolutely heroic as Jim, embodying the troubled hopes of a new nation -- even if we know those hopes won't be realized for another century. His rendition of Jim's rocking song about the Mississippi, "Muddy Water," will likely still be with you when you leave the theater.

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