Miracles don't come along often in the theater, and when they do, they seldom keep their supernatural glow for long. Deaf West Theatre's production of "Big River," which has wended its way back to Los Angeles from an acclaimed Broadway run, is an exception. For this ebullient adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," lightning has struck more than twice.
The miracles began with its creation, when Broadway producer Rocco Landesman tracked down one of his idols, country tunesmith Roger Miller, and essentially forced him to write his first and only musical. Though it won 1985 Tonys for best musical and for Miller's score and William Hauptman's book, it seemed unlikely to join the pantheon of essential American musicals.
Then in the fall of 2001, in a 65-seat black-box theater in North Hollywood, director Jeff Calhoun and the artists of Deaf West Theatre dusted off "Big River" and pulled a hat trick that had to be seen -- and heard -- to be believed: a "deaf" musical (Deaf West had done it only once before, with "Oliver!" the previous year). This unlikely hybrid of American Sign Language, spoken dialogue and song turned out to be a natural fit for the tall-tale fabulism of Twain's story, and the intimate space was a natural for Miller's homespun score.
Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson snapped it up and put it on his stage a year later, with few changes. While this L.A. "River" was still special, it looked like it might have gotten too big too soon.
Somehow the touring version now at the 1,600 -seat Ahmanson Theatre, though inarguably bigger than its previous incarnations, is also better. Calhoun has shaped and sharpened the material without losing the modular simplicity of Ray Klausen's storybook-page set, across which the shaggy-dog story sprawls under the watchful eyes of narrator Mark Twain (Daniel Jenkins, who starred as Huck in the original 1985 Broadway production). Jenkins also voices Huck and accompanies Steven Landau's small, expert band with nearly every stringed instrument available.
The cast features a number of deaf actors from the original Deaf West production -- Tyrone Giordano as Huck Finn, Troy Kotsur as his dissipated Pap, and Phyllis Frelich and Ryan Schlecht in a number of smaller roles (also the irresistible Rod Keller, a hearing performer who executes a variety of quick-change turns).
But what's most striking about this Broadway ensemble is how thoroughly it has intermingled sign-language with the lexicon of musical theater, to the point that we're soon convinced that this singular lingua franca -- physical, expressively theatrical, somehow clarifying, even to a hearing audience -- is the only way this story of friendship without borders can be told.
That's a good thing, because not everything about the material is so persuasive: A pair of con men who hitch a ride on Huck and Jim's raft and stick around the story for a long while are never as funny or as threatening as they should be.
And while Miller's authentically country-fried score has the un-Broadway-like virtues of bubbling tunefulness and lyrical economy, those relentlessly sunny major keys can get pretty syrupy. Luckily singers such as Jenkins, Melissa Van Der Schyff (from the Broadway cast), and Gwen Stewart have just the right country and gospel sounds to put it across.
It is curl-topped Tyrone Giordano, who has played a deaf Huck since the first Deaf West production, and Tony nominee Michael McElroy as the escaped slave Jim, who carry this delicate craft across its waves of "considerable trouble and considerable joy" and see it safely home. The lovely duet "Worlds Apart," in which they strengthen their bond while acknowledging the gaping gulf between them, has been the show's telltale heart since the original Deaf West production, as well as its most moving picture of how the deaf/hearing divide overlays the racial one.
The crowning miracle here is that the almost unbearable intimacy of this simple exchange has somehow seeped into and colored every moment of this big, but not too big "River."
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Jan. 23
Price: $30 to $85
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Daniel Jenkins...Mark Twain, voice of Huck
Benjamin Schrader...Tom Sawyer
Troy Kotsur, Erick Devine...Pap
Melissa Van Der Schyff...Mary Jane Wilkes, voice of Miss Watson
Phyllis Frelich...Miss Watson
James Judy...Judge Thatcher
Adapted from the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. Music and lyrics by Roger Miller. Book by William Hauptman. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun. Music director Steven Landau. Sets by Ray Klausen. Costumes by David R. Zyla. Lighting by Michael Gilliam. Production stage manager Bryan Young.