SMALL SPACE, 'BIG RIVER' ... THE TWAIN SHALL MEET.
There is a moment, quite near the beginning of ``Big River'' at Deaf West Theatre, where an enormous replicated book cover of Mark Twain's ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' is pulled slowly skyward to where it will rest for the remainder of the performance. Understand that Deaf West's stage is neither wide nor deep, and that cover - initially the centerpiece to Ray Klausen's quite wonderful scenic design - looks bulky as well as heavy. And for a few seconds, while it's being hoisted into place, I had the alarming feeling that unwieldy prop just ... might ... not ... make it.
Fifteen minutes later, I rebuked myself for worrying. Deaf West's house may be small and the company may still be new to the musical theater game (``Oliver!'' - Deaf West's maiden effort - was a huge success last year, the company's first in NoHo) but nothing - nothing - about Jeff Calhoun's production suggests a troupe not yet ready for challenges, scenic or otherwise.
So energetic and smart is Calhoun's staging, and with such tricky versatility is that set put to use, that it's a cinch to get swept along with the current of an easily digestible musical. Even forgivable is the fact that, in this production, the actor playing the runaway slave Jim is not vocally strong and that Huck Finn - one of literature's most appealing scamps - is being portrayed by a man who looks to be in his mid-20s.
``Huck Finn,'' it will be remembered, picks up where ``Tom Sawyer'' ends. Huck and the runaway slave Jim take a raft down the Mississippi in search of Jim's freedom and adventure. Along the way, they encounter some memorable characters.
At Deaf West, director/choreographer Calhoun has the advantage of being able to essentially double-cast character roles with speaking and signing actors. Usually, one of the actors is standing unobtrusively aside or out of sight completely, but not always. There is a classic sight gag whereby Huck's disreputable dad Pap Finn (played by deaf actor Troy Kotsur) meets his speaking counterpart (Lyle Kanouse) through a looking glass. Granted, it's vaguely Marx Brothers-esque piece of business, but it plays. The two actors browbeat Huck (Tyrone Giordano) in stereo before doing a vaudevillian ham job on a song called ``Guv'ment.''
Pap Finn doesn't return, but Kanouse does, playing the role of the King, one of a pair of scam artists who Huck and Jim (James Black) encounter down the Mississippi. His partner in crime is the Duke (Allen Neece), the closest thing ``Big River'' has to an outright villain. Roly-poly and shameless, Kanouse gets plenty of comic mileage out of his performance as the royal nonesuch.
There's an easy chemistry between Giordano's Huck and Black's Jim - a pair of social outsiders who undertake the adventure of a lifetime together. The musical's text has not been updated for deaf references although an important part of Twain's novel - and librettist William Hauptman's adaptation - illustrates why Jim might know sign language. Nor do Hauptman and composer Roger Miller shy away from the play's racial or satiric elements.
Klausen and Calhoun have essentially transformed the stage into a kind of multicompartment utility box with doors, walls and openings revealing new surprises at every interval. They duplicate Huck and Jim's raft, and yes, through a nice lighting effect courtesy of Michael Gilman, we even get a peek at the Old Man River himself. Huge illustrated pages from ``Huck Finn'' decorate the stage, opening up more sight gags, and Bill O'Brien is on hand both as Mark Twain the narrator and to supply Huck's speaking voice. Seated at a downstage piano, music director Steven Landau conducts a three-member orchestra located in an upper level enclave.
``Big River,'' a Tony award winner for Best Musical during a weak season, is a touch sappy, and it starts to bog down late (at around the same time that the novel does) when Tom Sawyer (Michael Davis) re-enters the picture.
Still, with a production like this one, you even forgive the flaws of the source material. Here's a lesson on how to do musicals on a small scale while losing none of the pizazz.
Where: Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 16.
Tickets: $15 to $25. Call (818) 762-2773 or (818) 762-2782.
Our rating: Three and one half stars
James Black, left, as Jim and Tyrone Giordano as Huck let the current carry them along in the musical ``Big River'' at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Review; L.A. Life|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Theater Review|
|Date:||Nov 9, 2001|
|Previous Article:||OVERWROUGHT 'HAVEN' HITS A DISAPPOINTING NOTE.|
|Next Article:||'MATTER OF TASTE': GO AHEAD, TRY IT.|