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Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

'Big River'' is an apt name for the musical adaptation of Mark Twain's ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' that opened at the Mark Taper Forum on Wednesday. This sprawling production is at times magnificent and powerful but other times swollen and muddy. Yet it's hard to take your eyes off this entertaining musical about the mischievous scamp Huck and the runaway slave Jim because there always seems to be a surprise or two around the bend.

Originally developed at the 99-seat Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, where it was a critical success when it opened in October 2001, ``Big River,'' written by William Hauptman from Twain's novel, uses both speaking and signing actors.

For instance, Tyrone Giordano, who plays Huck, signs all his dialogue, with his voice being supplied by Scott Waara, who plays Twain, the tale's narrator. Actually, all the ``voice'' actors sign, too, while speaking their parts. This may seem disconcerting at first to hearing members of the audience - it was evident there were many hearing-impaired in the theater Wednesday night - but before long it becomes an interesting way to tell the story. The signing became a form of mime - a theatrical exaggeration that ``Big River'' would amusingly exploit.

Early on, Huck is confronted by his returning Papp (played by a signing Troy Kotsur), who chides him for his easy living, including having a mirror, which, when he looks into it, shows the voiced Papp (Lyle Kanouse). Dressed exactly the same way, the pair continue the scene, with Papp always seemingly talking into a mirror, as if to empathize his selfishness and disregard of others. All the while, though, the pair draw laughs out of the situation.

Inventiveness is the hallmark of ``Big River'' - directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun - beginning with the set, which is made up of large pages of Twain's classic, complete with illustrations. The opening and closing pages are there, and some of them cleverly opened and closed as doors. Eventually, one becomes the raft that Huck and Jim (Rufus Bonds Jr.) take on their life-changing journey down the Mississippi River. When they leave the shore, giant pages part, revealing a luminous vertical rectangle representing the river - simple but almost breathtakingly effective.

``Big River'' has a strong cast, but the linchpin of the production is Waara, who stands off to the side much of the time as the voice of Huck but finds another one when he assumes the role of Twain. He also has a fine singing voice and occasionally adds a guitar and banjo to the five-piece band that accompanies the production. ``Big River'' has 20 musical numbers, a cross section of Americana ranging from blues to country to gospel to spiritual to a touch of pop and show tunes. Only a few of the tunes by Roger Miller really stand out - ``Waiting for the Light to Shine,'' ``When the Sun Goes Down on the South'' and ``The Royal Nonesuch,'' among them. A few, while passable, could easily be trimmed.

But the cast, which boasts a number of superb voices, is effective and enthusiastic, and that goes a long way in making ``Big River'' an enjoyable experience. At the beginning of the play, Twain warns the audience not to make too much out this adventure tale, but we know that the author - not known for his sentimentality - used his so-called light entertainment to examine a racially divided nation.

Though ``Big River'' does not have the ambition of ``Finn,'' it does strive to be more than light entertainment. There is a scene in which Jim tells Huck how he had become angry at his daughter for not listening to him, only to realize later that she was deaf and then feeling remorse for his insensitivity.

It is a moment that undoubtedly resonated with the audience. It was Twain's way of telling us we all learn humanity (and humility) from others - Huck from Jim, Jim from his daughter. Not always easy amid the rhetoric of the time (or this time). ``Abolitionist'' is a dirty word to Huck at first, but as he grows, the word changes.

And it's interesting that ``Big River'' didn't shy away from using a racial slur of the time found in Twain's novel that has drawn the ire of contemporary groups. It's not a word that one wants bandied about, but it's a reminder of insensitivity and hurtfulness. It took courage for those behind ``Big River'' to include it - to say that things weren't and aren't always pleasant.

Then it took moxie for a mostly hearing-impaired troupe to put on a musical, but that only gets you so far. While ``Big River'' isn't as deep as its source material, it ultimately makes its points and succeeds on its own very entertaining terms.

BIG RIVER - Three and one half stars

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 29.

Tickets: $35 to $50. Call (213) 628-2772.

In a nutshell: It's not ``Finn'' but it takes moxie for a mostly hearing-impaired cast to bring off this musical.




Tyrone Giordano signs his dialogue as Huck Finn in Deaf West's production of the musical ``Big River'' at the Mark Taper Forum.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 15, 2002

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