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It is a tale that many of us know, that of a young boy’s adventures on the Mississippi River while helping a slave, named Jim, to escape. One of the greatest novels of American literature, Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is set in the 1840s, long before the Civil War, and is a touching story of love and friendship that transcends race. Now, it is being brought to life in an entirely new production of the Broadway musical “Big River,” this time directed by Jeff Calhoun.

But hold on, this is no ordinary song-and-dance routine. “Big River,” originally staged on Broadway in 1985, has been re-created by Deaf West Theater, the first-ever professional sign-language theater, established in 1991 in Hollywood. And here, the cast — which includes eight deaf and hard-of-hearing performers within a cast of 24, comes together to dramatize this American epic using American Sign Language.

Throughout the show, every word spoken or sung is simultaneously signed by the actor or actress. Voices for the deaf performers are supplied using a kind of a ventriloquial technique, so that both hearing and deaf audience members can enjoy the dialogue and songs. But the truth is, if you look at the performers’ faces and the hand movements, you almost don’t need to hear the words — because that is how expressive the acting is.

“We’d rather promote the notion of the deaf community as being a language-based culture rather than a medically limited community,” said Bill O’Brian, the show’s producer. And limited, they are not.

Take Tyrone Giordano, the hard-of-hearing actor who plays the lead role of Huck. Giordano lights up the stage with a mischievous smile and a boyish glint in his eyes, giving off an air of innocence, just as you’d imagine in the face of the book’s 13-year-old Huck. His movements are mesmerizing because even if he is not speaking, you can feel that his expressions come straight from the heart.

The core of the musical is the development of the friendship between Huck, who is white, and Jim, a black runaway slave almost twice his age. Each has been brought up to believe that the other is from a completely different world with a completely different set of values. Hence, inevitably, emotional conflict ensues.

“The story of Huck is a struggle between what you are taught is true, and what you feel and know is true within,” said Giordano. “I am hoping that people will see the emotional journey of Huck, his growth as a person.”

“This story has a very tangible connection to deaf and hearing people being worlds apart,” added producer O’Brian. “It helps expose how two completely separate worlds are really not as different from each other as it seems, in terms of basic humanity.”

The man who connects Giordano’s performance of Huck to the world of hearing is Daniel Jenkins, who actually played Huck in the original Broadway version. In this production, there is an extra dimension to the role as he also plays the author Mark Twain.

As Jenkins speaks the lines in his strong Southern accent, Giordano’s expression correspondingly runs through a gamut of human emotions — hurt, bored, wide-eyed with wonder, and the like. The way the two are completely in sync makes it easy to forget that they are in fact two different actors.

“I am not just saying the words at the same time he [Giordano] is signing the line,” explained Jenkins. “As we practiced, we felt we needed to find out the meaning of the spirit behind a word, the things in between the words, what’s happening emotionally in the moment and what obstacles the character is encountering.”

Michael McElroy also delivers a powerful performance as Jim, portraying him in a notably mature, many-faceted characterization. He feels wonder and joy at his new friendship with Huck, but torment because his wife and children are still enslaved. He also powerfully conveys anger and hurt when, in a key scene, Huck plays a cruel trick on him.

Along with Jenkins, McElroy joined DWT’s “Big River” when it went to Broadway last year. This also meant that they had to learn sign language from scratch — according to the pair they had only a week to master it.

“For me, signing was very freeing on a certain level,” said McElroy. “Because as an actor, suddenly, I had another tool with which to express my character.”

In this way, ASL became more than just a simple communicative medium in this performance — it has transformed into choreography. And each song, each act, is the result of it.

The trio — Giordano, Jenkins and McElroy — deliver a series of breathtaking songs, including “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain.”

One highlight is the heartbreakingly beautiful duet “Worlds Apart.” In this scene, Jim and Huck sing about the two different worlds they are living in, and how they see the same things — but differently because of the racial divide.

“I think that in this act, Jim teaches Huck a lesson,” said associate director and choreographer Coy Middlebrook.

“It’s the first time that Huck has seen the possibility of looking at any given situation from a different point of view.”

Another act to watch out for is “Guv’ment,” a hilarious scene that centers on Pap, Huck’s drunken father. Pap is also played by two people, deaf actor Troy Kotsur and hearing actor Erick Devine. Unlike other acts, this scene uses a new trick — both Kotsur and Devine appear on stage dressed exactly the same way and move around as if you are seeing double. Side-by-side, the two create the disgraceful figure of the alcoholic Pap, roaming about the stage and bullying poor Huck in a drunken stupor.

The climax of the show is “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” which is when Huck realizes that he must go against what he has been taught and just do what his heart tells him. The whole cast appear onstage with the orchestra playing full out, until at the song’s highest point, the voices and instruments cut out, leaving the ASL signers to convey the melody noiselessly, straight from the heart.

“People usually think that music is what they are hearing out there, forgetting about what’s inside,” said Giordano. “This show is a stretch of the idea that music is not just for hearing people, it’s also for the deaf. I think in a way that this show calls attention to the fact that music is really from the inside.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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