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Signing and Singing: Deaf Actors Bring Musical to Broadway - 2003-09-02

A groundbreaking revival of the 1985 musical Big River is playing on Broadway and it's getting rave reviews. The show is based on the 1885 American classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by author Mark Twain. What sets the show apart is the cast, half of the actors are deaf. Correspondent Jenny Badner has more from New York on a Broadway musical told entirely in American Sign Language.

At the climax of the show, the entire cast of Big River performs the number, "Waiting for the Light to Shine." The hearing actors sing the music. At the same time, they and about a dozen deaf actors sign the lyrics. Suddenly, the music stops. But in the silence, the song keeps going.

The actors continue to stretch their arms high above their heads as they sign the words in what looks like a perfectly coordinated dance number.

Big River director Jeffrey Calhoun says the ten seconds of silence are a metaphor for the entire project. "My dream was that by the end of the show, the audience was forgetting who is deaf and who is hearing and it just became a wonderful theatrical stew," said the director. "And just when I had hoped that that they had forgotten, I really wanted to take away the sound track as just a reminder of what we are dealing with."

Mr. Calhoun says the Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the perfect story for a collaborative show between deaf and hearing theater companies.

Using musical genres from the American South, including bluegrass and gospel, the cast tells the tale of Huck, a white boy fleeing a drunken father, and Jim, a black runaway slave.

Huck and Jim travel on a raft down the Mississippi River. During their wild journey, Jim teaches Huck about life. And Huck learns to empathize with Jim and other slaves bought and sold as property.

Actor Michael McElroy plays Jim. He says telling a story that explores people's differences in sign language adds an extra layer of depth to "Big River." "The show's themes deal with slavery versus freedom, black versus white, older or younger, and, in spite of all these differences, those people are able to come together and form a bond of love, trust and friendship," explained Mr. McElroy. "And I think you add this other layer of hearing and non-hearing and it just adds a whole level to the show and I think it only serves to make the show even stronger and deeper."

But putting the show together was not easy. Hidden cues, such as lights and monitors, had to be positioned on stage to help the deaf actors find their places during complicated dance numbers.

A hearing actor accompanies each deaf actor to voice his or her lines. And every hearing actor had to learn sign language so every word is both voiced and signed.

Michael McElroy says it was a challenge to learn sign language and to bring dignity to the role of a slave. "One of the highlights for me is giving voice to this experience, this history of our country, slavery," he said. "Allowing people to see it as what it is, but also allowing people to see this character who, despite all of the difficulties that he has, he still has dignity, and he still strives to be the best person he can."

Mr. McElroy says another highlight was acting alongside actor Tyrone Giordano, who plays Huckleberry Finn. Wearing a straw hat and trousers with suspenders, he brings the young Huck's character as a troublemaker to life.

Mr. Giordano is deaf. He has a limited ability to hear with the help of hearing aids. Still, he says it was difficult to fully respect music without full hearing.

"I had a problem during rehearsal when we were doing the song "Muddy Water." It seemed to me that I was signing the same line over and over again, which is pretty much true for the spoken word," he said. "It is the same thing over and over again, except the intensity and the emotion and the reasoning behind the same word is different each time you say it."

Mr. Giordano says performing Big River on Broadway is like a dream come true. "Many of us were born without the sense of sound, and that is perfectly fine by us because we do not know what we are missing. Actually, it is everybody else telling us that we are missing something and we pretty much are telling them the same thing, that they are missing out on a wonderful rich culture," he said, referring to what is known as deaf culture.

Some hearing audiences have said they were ambivalent, at first, about seeing a "deaf musical." But in the end, they describe Big River as an entertaining experience accessible to everyone.