A musical performed by a combination of hearing and deaf actors. The prospect sounds unwieldy, at the very least. But it's difficult to imagine a revival of Roger Miller and William Hauptman's Big River that flows more gracefully or resonates more meaningfully than the one co-produced by Deaf West Theatre at Ford's Theatre in Washington.
Not only does director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun's staging of this 1985 Huckleberry Finn musical succeed on multiple levels - visually, aurally, literally, metaphorically - but it is one of those rare and wonderful examples of a show that does what it is about.
In Mark Twain's novel, the story of the bond between young Huck and Jim, the runaway slave, is a tale of cross-cultural understanding. In this Tony Award-nominated revival - simultaneously spoken and signed in American Sign Language - the interaction between the hearing and deaf actors is its own demonstration of cross-cultural understanding.
And in almost every case, the interaction adds an extra layer of meaning. For instance, Christopher B. Corrigan, who plays Huck, is a deaf actor who signs his part. His words are voiced by Bill O'Brien, who also plays Mark Twain, the show's narrator. Because the novel is written from Huck's point of view, the casting reinforces the idea that Twain speaks through Huck.
Huck's father, on the other hand, is played by two identically dressed actors - Darren Frazier, who is hard of hearing, and Jay Lusteck, who is not. Together, they embody the novel's line that "Pap" has "two angels" around him - one good and one bad. Calhoun's direction emphasizes their co-dependence. When one Pap looks in the mirror, he sees the other. And after one takes a swig of liquor, the second wipes his own mouth.
This isn't one of those nontraditional casting projects in which you're supposed to forget the differences that exist on stage. To the contrary, the production celebrates difference and uses it to stunning advantage, in ways large and small.
One of the small ways comes at the end of Huck and Jim's rousing duet, "Muddy Water," when the actors jointly sign the song's final word, "ride," with Michael McElroy's Jim positioning his fingers on the back of Corrigan's hand. Their fate, riding a raft on the Mississippi, is unmistakably intertwined.
A large, breathtaking example occurs near the end of the show, when most of the cast is singing and signing "Waitin' for the Light to Shine." After the music has filled the theater, the final chorus is signed in total silence. By that point, communication barriers have been crossed; the audience can hear the music.
This rich production is further enhanced by designer Ray Klausen's storybook set, which consists primarily of huge, free-standing pages from the novel. Doors are cut out of pages; part of a page rises up to become the roof of Pap's shack; and Tom Sawyer's cave is a hole surrounded by a spiral of silver words on a black background.
The performers range in experience from Corrigan, an expressive 18-year-old freshman at Washington's Gallaudet University, to McElroy, a Broadway veteran with a stirring voice, re-creating his 2004 Tony-nominated role. As Twain, O'Brien - Deaf West's managing director and the actor who created the role in the original 2001 Los Angeles production - not only makes a wry narrator, he also plays guitar and brings an authentic-sounding twang to his catchy country western songs.
Country western music and the American musical are both indigenous forms, yet there are surprisingly few country musicals. As one of those few, Big River is a logical choice for America's most historic theater, Ford's. But the stunning way that this particular production illustrates inclusion makes it even more fitting - a genuinely democratic work that can and should be celebrated by the widest range of theatergoers.
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and April 9 and 16, and noon Wednesdays and April 21 and 28. Through May 1