We're taught nothing can be "most unique" It's impossible, say English teachers, because if something is unique, it's unique. Well, there's an exception to every rule and that exception will soon be at Roundabout Theater Company's American Airlines Theater [beginning Tuesday, July 1, 2004] in the form of the return of the award-winning family musical, Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Why, you ask, is a revival of a Tony-winning musical "most unique"? The answer is easy. It's being brought back as a "deaf musical." And to say it's non-traditional in the annals of theater would be an understatement.

Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun says, "Mere words can't describe the experience. It's a new art form. It has to be seen, heard and felt. This show has turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my life and I know audiences will feel the same."

As co-choreographer of Annie Get Your Gun (1999 Tony Award, Best Revival, Musical), choreographer of the Broadway revival of Bells Are Ringing and the Tony-nominated choreographer of 1994's Grease! revival, he's been around.
What makes it unique, notes Calhoun, is that you hear language and "see" it at the same time. Music, dance, voice and sign language have been interwoven among nine deaf and hard-of-hearing actors and nine hearing actors, who perform in speech and sign language.
Ed Waterstreet, founder/artistic director of Deaf West, explained that "from our start in 1990 as the first professional American Sign Language [ASL] theatre in the West, I wanted to do a sign language musical. I love all aspects of theater, but especially musicals. In 2000, working with Jeff, we did Oliver! It proved such a hit that our 66-seat theater [in North Hollywood] was overrun. We began looking to do another one."

After Big River's production in Deaf West's 66-seater, it was up-sized and presented for a smash 10-week run at the Mark Taper Forum. That's where Jim Carnahan, director of artistic development/director of casting for Roundabout saw it. He returned to New York ecstatic and, quick as a wink, Roundabout's head honcho Todd Haimes "on a gut instinct," says aterstreet, "said, 'Let's do it here.'"
The musical, one of theater's great family treasures, is adapted from Mark Twain's most celebrated tale by Willliam Hauptman. It was set to music by Grammy-winning country hitmaker Roger Miller, who wrote such country and crossover gems as "King of the Road" and "Dang Me." In 1985, it was a hot ticket and won seven Tony Awards including Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical. Miller died in 1992 and was elected posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Deaf West struck oil again with Big River, reports Waterstreet. "In the first minutes, some audience members were a bit unsure, but, as they got sucked into the unique rhythms, they became fascinated as the signing and vocals meshed. Soon, they were in another world, our world."

Waterstreet, 60, is the only deaf child in a family of seven. "They learned sign language with me, but I was always trying to find ways to communicate with them," he explains. "I discovered how effective acting out things was." When he was taken to see his first play, A Christmas Carol, "I felt so left out. I wanted to be involved, but I couldn't. I kept wishing there would be something there for me. And now there is."

How can he enjoy a musical when he can't hear it? "With my hearing aid," he replies, through his interpreter, "I hear a little. I'm lucky, but a totally deaf person is in a different spot. The totally deaf absorb music pulses because they can feel the vibrations. It was a challenge, but it came together amazing well. A lot of people are skeptical until they see the piece, then their jaws drop open."

As is often the case, Calhoun came to Deaf West via a circuitous route. A producer/actor he had worked with on The Will Rogers Follies told him he was "looking for someone who could do strange and unusual things in strange and unusual circumstances. And he thought of me. When I learned what the project was, I thought someone was pulling a practical joke. Looking back, any hesitation I might have had, I'm ashamed of. It's turned out to be the most rewarding experience of my life."

But adapting Big River didn't come easy. "It was scary," explains Calhoun. "A deaf musical! There were six weeks of rehearsal and, before that, script preparation. I never realized how much patience I had! In rehearsals, we are only able to use a piano. The orchestra comes much later, so it was difficult for the deaf actors to pick up the rhythms from the piano tones. It took hours and hours of rehearsing it again and again."

Notes Waterstreet, "We found the perfect director in Jeff. He understands my vision of signing and hearing coming together; and, inside, he really developed the skills to make it work seamlessly."

Big River, fittingly, is an adventure of self-discovery in1840s America that begins when Huck, escaping from his drunken father, is rafting on the Mississippi River and meets Jim, a runaway slave Jim. Musical numbers include "Do You Want to Go To Heaven," "Waiting for the Light To Shine," "When the Sun Goes Down in the South" and "Worlds Apart."

Adapting the show into a "deaf musical," informs Calhoun, didn't expand it. "In fact, we made it tighter without cutting anything."

In L.A., Big River went on to win six Ovation Awards and five more Drama Critics' Circle Awards, including Best Director and Best Musical. The New York cast includes Dan Jenkins as Mark Twain and the voice of Huck. This production is a return up river for Jenkins, who received a 1985 Tony nomination for originating the role of Huck. Also starred are Broadway veteran Walter Charles, Gina Ferrall, Michael Arden as Tom Sawyer and Michael McElroy as Jim.
They not only perform their roles but also voice deaf actors, such as Phyllis Frelich (Miss Watson), winner of the 1980 Best Actress Tony for Children of a Lesser God and Tyrone Giordano (Huck).
Deaf West Theatre funding is provided by, among others, the Department of Education [a five-year, $4-million grant] and the National Endowment for the Arts. Its productions of plays such as Equus, The House Of Bernarda Alba and Medea have received awards from L.A. Weekly, Backstage West and DramaLogue.

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Key Subjects: 
Big River, Jeff Calhoun, Deaf West Theater, Dan Jenkins, Roundabout Theater Company
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer
Date: 
June 2003
Subtitle: 
The Making of a Deaf Musical