A World of Silence That Sings: Big River Breaks New Ground

I’m sure that everyone who sees the new revival of Big River won’t forget a certain staggering moment that deserves to go down in theater history.

Roger Miller’s folksy 1985 Broadway musical, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , had its critics the first time round (myself included), though it won a bunch of Tonys. But late in Act II of the current revival from the Los Angeles–based Deaf West Theatre, produced by the Roundabout-the show is performed by both deaf and hearing actors in unique theatrical partnership-we experience something that struck me as sublime and shocking. The entire ensemble is onstage, a chorus line of the deaf and the hearing, reprising Mr. Miller’s sweet ballad or country evangelical, “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” when all sound suddenly cuts off.

The orchestra stops playing and the hearing actors stop singing. And what we see, in effect, is the entire ensemble singing in silence. They’re performing the song for us entirely in sign language. And this is the miraculous thing: We “see” the song! In a sense, there’s an astonishing reversal of fortune. Both the hearing and the deaf who are onstage-and in the audience-have become equal partners in a language of silence.

In the synchronized ripples of sign language, within its enormous rhythmic precision and emotion, the uplifting number suddenly takes us to strange and wonderful heights that its late composer, Roger Miller, never could have imagined.

Big River’s director, Jeff Calhoun, doesn’t milk the fantastic coup for a second, and it says a great deal for his integrity that he lets the “silent song” continue for only a few bars. Its brevity is what stuns us most. For Mr. Calhoun is also reminding us, as if gently tapping us on the shoulder, that seven of his 18 actors are deaf.

That the reminder proves necessary is a tribute to the extraordinary work of everyone involved in the production. On the one hand, we-the hearing-can scarcely begin to grasp what it takes for a deaf actor to interpret a song in sign language that’s in perfect sync with an orchestra. Second after second, there are all kinds of subtle cues that most of us wouldn’t even notice. We take props for granted onstage, but the deaf actor must be careful when to hold something. He needs his hands! And to my untutored eyes, sign language itself possesses an elemental urgency. I’ve seen interpreters signing a show at the edge of the stage who are more alive than anything happening that night onstage. Sign language cannot easily lie. The deaf actor can sentimentalize it, but he cannot fake it, because he has nowhere to hide.

Mr. Calhoun has upped the ante, however. He has the hearing actors singing the songs and speaking the lines that are performed simultaneously in sign language. So Huck (played by the excellent young deaf actor Tyrone Giordano) signs the lead role that’s unobtrusively sung and spoken by the fine Daniel Jenkins in another winning performance. Huck’s drunken Pap is performed by two actors-one deaf, one hearing-like Jungian shadows stuck with each other’s wayward life. Two alien worlds and languages therefore meet; and sign language has been moved on Broadway from the outskirts of the action to center stage.

It’s why the silent bars of “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine” are so stunning. By that point, we’re so used to the ensemble performing the musical in effortless tandem, it’s a jolt to be reminded that many of them live in silence.

But in the beginning and the end, I regret to say, we’re left with Miller’s hokey score, which never ranked as a major American musical. The twangy small-town folksiness of it all tames Mark Twain’s disturbing epic story of the American experience as surely as Aunt Sally wants to civilize the liberated Huck.

Arkansas, Arkansas

I just love ole Arkansas

Love my ma, love my pa

But I just love ole Arkansas

Miller, the renowned country-and-western composer who described himself with self-deprecating wit as the “Jerome Corn of the American musical,” possesses Twain’s playfulness, even whimsy, but not the gravity. The heady sense of Huck’s untamed life on the river with the runaway slave Jim-what’s dangerously at stake and the contamination of innocence-are made earnestly sweet. The production’s familiar design motif of huge, unfolding book pages with illustrations and text from Huckleberry Finn have the additional effect of turning the story into a “charming” children’s fairy tale. And, alas, there’s no awesome sense of the Mississippi River-Twain’s “strong, brown god”-that’s the soul of the piece.

And yet it made theater history. Whatever I might think of Roger Miller or the production’s storybook design, the evening belongs gloriously to its ensemble of the deaf and the hearing, who broke new ground and won all hearts with its staggering, silent song.

Midsummer Madness

There are some peculiar shows off Broadway this summer. The titles are certainly promising: He Died with a Falafel in His Hand ; Menopause the Musical ; Gravity Always Wins ; Fresh Fruit (subtitled “The First Annual International Lower East Side Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Theatre and Performance Festival”-and try saying that in Danish). I was tempted by Swim Shorts II (Wetter and Wilder) , Word of Mouth’s site-specific Festival of Aquatic Theatre at the rooftop pool of the 57th Street Holiday Inn.

Hey, you never know.

Actually, you do. You do know. But only after a while. You watch the show while relaxing poolside on a chaise longue as the sun goes down, perhaps with a cooling beer if you like. (There’s a cash bar; the admission is $15, with an additional $5 if you want to use the pool after the performance.) The show, accompanied by the faint aroma of chlorine, began well. An audience plant was talking loudly on his cell phone when the rest of the cast descended on him and drowned him in the pool. “Can you hear now?!” one of them screamed at him as they held his head underwater. ” Can you hear now?!!! “

The sketches that I thought revealed the most possibilities were “Hey, Good Lookin’,” the story of Narcissus and Superfluous, and “The Jesus Metaphor,” in which an optimistic young man believes he can walk on water and a cynical lifeguard tells him to get a life. But perhaps too much of the action took place poolside rather than in the pool, à la Mary Zimmerman’s splashy Metamorphoses , and I’d suggest that a few too many punch lines ended with someone being thrown in the water. Apart from that, the night was harmless and harmlessly silly. And I’d like to award a medal of honor to a young actress named Hope Albrecht. Her terrific, high energy performance as First Mate Timbers, in something indescribable entitled “Cap’n Pachnee and the Legendary Siren of Killian the Red,” kept it all going, somehow. She has such heart and spirit; she deserves the best. Hope Albrecht’s the one.