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As Long as We Remember...

March 25, 2005

Huckleberry Finn with Flying Fingers

Roy Meachum

The new management at Washington's historic Ford's Theatre brought in a knock out to close its first season, a show that has special appeal for a number of folks in this community.

The title "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" lays out what the evening is all about. Sure enough, the first person on stage is Mark Twain (Bill O'Brien) who hangs around the entire performance, slipping in and out of characters, while he tells the story of a pre-Civil War raft ride down the Mississippi by Huck and the escaped slave, Jim.

When the musical first popped up on Broadway some 20 years ago, it danced off with seven - count 'em - seven Tonys, the New York stage's highest honor. Watching Ford's latest presentation opening night I felt no urge to quibble.

Taken strictly as a theatrical event, the book, score, sets and direction are well worth the time and cost traveling down the Potomac. Even those who were lucky enough to catch the original production should be satisfied, maybe more, playing in the 19th century theater's intimate confines brings the audience closer, in more ways than one.

But, as the old time carnival barkers delighted in proclaiming, "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Every spoken line and all song lyrics are translated into American Sign Language simultaneously. This brings to the musical an incredible choreographic effect: graceful and dynamic, delightful and highly dramatic. The added dimension converts a thoroughly entertaining evening into a moving personal experience.

To bring the evening off, the cast comes in several hearing flavors: those who can fully hear, the profoundly deaf and the hard of hearing. As a result, several characters require a pair of actors.

Deafness usually creates impaired speech: what cannot be heard cannot be repeated. Therefore, a splendid theatrical talent like Chris Corrigan's would be shut out if he were forced to "speak the speech." In this show, while he mimes and fashions splendid signs with his hands, Mark Twain's/Bill O'Brien's voice can be heard, but from out of the spotlight so that audience concentration remains on Corrigan's visually superb Huck Finn.

Not incidentally, Michael McElroy sings, speaks and signs the runaway slave as he did when this production appeared on Broadway a few seasons back. McElroy's Jim simply could not be improved on: he stops the show in the second act with a powerful "Free at Last" that has Ford's antique rafters ringing.

Jeff Calhoun deserves praise beyond his directing and choreography; he has knit together numerous disparities into a solid smash that will please literally everyone, including those normally shut out from musicals and plays. Bravo!

Calhoun's work was made far easier by an outfit called Deaf West Theatre, a group dedicated primarily to improving and enriching the lives of the Los Angeles area's 1.2 million people who are hearing impaired.

Deaf West originated this take of "Big River" and took it off to Broadway where it won a Tony on its own. Ford's joined several other arts centers around the country backing the tour that includes Washington. The show hangs around through the month of May, that way you'll have little excuse not to catch one of the truly most remarkable evenings of theatre I've ever witnessed in a long life smelling greasepaint.

The show again: "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The place: Washington's famed Ford's Theatre. For more information, you can call 202-347-4833.

This is a near-breathtaking production that simply should be seen by every member of your family.

Woodsboro - Walkersville Times
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