Tyrone Giordano and Michael McElroy in Big River(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Tyrone Giordano and Michael McElroy in Big River
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
One of the best performances of the year is being given by two actors. In the current Broadway production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the 1985 musical based on Mark Twain's novel about a scrappy runaway and his adventures on the Mississippi, Tyrone Giordano plays Huck Finn -- and so does Daniel Jenkins. While Giordano, a young deaf actor making his Broadway debut, bounds across the stage, conveying his lines in American Sign Language and speaking volumes with his expressive face, Jenkins (who originated the role in '85, solo) remains on the sidelines, giving voice to Huck in dialogue and song.

Displaying commendable versatility, Jenkins does more than provide the voice of Huck; he also plays Mark Twain, in whose person he acts as a narrator, remaining costumed as the author throughout the show. Jenkins also plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and even a little ukelele onstage. He proves to be a consummate storyteller as he slips in and out of Huck's voice with ease, working in perfect symbiosis with the wonderful Giordano, who is making his debut on the Great White Way thanks to the vision of the Roundabout Theatre Company and L.A.'s Deaf West Theatre. Giordano is not the only deaf actor in the production: This unique version of the musical employs both hearing and deaf actors, utilizing speech and sign language, music and movement, to tell Twain's famous tale.

The runaway slave Jim tells Huck at the beginning of their adventure that the boy will have great trouble and great joy in his life. This production, however, is pure joy. From the moment fiddler Cenovia Cummins lights off on her instrument, the show goes like gangbusters, spinning the tale of Huck Finn, a youngster caught between a boring life with his godly aunt and the dangerous influence of his violent, alcoholic father. Afraid that his delusional Pap will kill him, Huck runs from home and comes upon the recently escaped Jim. The two agree to flee together and head to freedom on a raff, but they run into difficulty when they get mixed up with a couple of charlatans who call themselves The King and The Duke.

The show's cast is marvelous and especially impressive in its commitment. Even the hearing actors sign their dialogue; this is not a bit distracting, and though most of the hearing actors do not sign with the beauty of their deaf counterparts, they have their hearts fully in it. The deaf and hard-of-hearing actors make only minor lip movements as they sign while other actors (in between playing their own characters) speak and sing for them. For one character, Pap, a doppelgänger is employed to great comic effect. A big 'ol hand goes to director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun for making this risky concept work like a charm.

In addition to Giordano and Jenkins, cast members particularly worthy or note are Troy Kotsur as the Duke and Walter Charles as his voice, and Michael Arden as the irrepressible troublemaker Tom Sawyer. In the role of Jim, Michael McElroy proves yet again that he's one of the best singing actors around, sensitive and strong and possessing a voice that brings the house down every time he raises it in song. McElroy and Giordano share some beautiful moments as Jim and Huck, whether they're excitedly signing their duet "River in the Rain" or lamenting their differences in "Worlds Apart."

Twain's narrative is delightful as ever as adapted for the musical stage by book writer William Hauptman and Calhoun's pacing is nearly flawless, but it's the contribution of country songwriter Roger Miller that gives Big River an extra kick. Under the musical direction of Steven Landau (who also did the fabulous bluegrassy orchestrations for this production), a six-piece band blazes through Miller's score. Included are some songs you may recognize, such as "Muddy Water" and the aforementioned "River in the Rain." Miller's work on Big River has always been a bit underrated; though this is not your standard Broadway sound, songs like "Do You Wanna Go To Heaven?" and "We Are The Boys" function very well as musical theater songs. Yet it's the gospel numbers that really raise the roof, from Jim's "Free At Last" to the soaring "Waitin' for the Light to Shine." In a brilliant twist, the hearing members of the audience are allowed to experience the climax of the latter song in the same way as the deaf patrons.

If there is anything to criticize in this production it's the fact that, after the fast-paced first act, the second act lags a bit as the shenanigans of the Duke and the King continue from their sham freak show "The Royal Nonesuch" (one of the score's more forgettable numbers) to an elaborate scheme involving an Arkansas family's inheritance. Still, once Twain has worked the plot into a proper tangle, it's a pleasure to watch him unravel it -- all the way to the deus ex machina that helps bring the story to its happy conclusion.

Tyrone Giordano, Daniel Jenkins, and the company of Big River(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Tyrone Giordano, Daniel Jenkins, and the company of Big River
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ray Klausen's set design is surprisingly basic for Broadway; the most flashy effects here are a bit of fog and rain, and a star-filled sky. But who needs visual bells and whistles when you have an exciting story, terrific music, and a tireless, talented cast? Jim and Huck's raft is a wooden piece set at center stage, and the action is surrounded by oversized illustrated pages from Twain's book. These pages serve mostly as decoration but they occasionally allow for some cute moments, as in the clever ending of the first act.

The technical staff of Big River deserves special accolades. They've faced many challenges that, because they are so well handled, are barely perceptible. For instance, sound designer Peter Fitzgerald had to do some tweaking to make it sound as if the dialogue of the speaking actors is coming from the mouths of the deaf actors, while costume designer David R. Zyla had to insure that his creations (which are lovely, by the way) allowed the actors' hands to remain unfettered for clear signing. Linda Bove, Freda Norman, Betsy Ford, and Anthony Natale have contributed their expertise in American Sign Language to the production.

This Big River is a landmark moment for deaf Broadway fans. At last, they do not have to settle for one of the handful of performances of standard shows at which signing interpreters are employed, not do they have to constantly shift their eyes back and forth between action onstage and words being signed on the sidelines. For hearing audiences, the production may not seem quite so momentous, but it is nevertheless a joyous theatrical experience.