West Windsor, N.J. – The powerful tale of Huckleberry Finn is vividly brought to life for both the hearing and deaf communities when the Pennington Players present “Big River,” Roger Miller and William Hauptman’s Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Performances are Fridays, Oct. 4 and 11 at 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Oct. 5 and 12 at 8 p.m.; and Sundays, Oct. 6 and 13 at 2 p.m. Kelsey Theatre is located on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. A reception with the cast and crew follows the opening night performance on Oct. 4.
The production is based on the 2003 Broadway staging by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Deaf West Theatre. Huckleberry Finn narrates the story of Huck, a young man who takes a long journey to accompany an escaped slave named Jim on his quest for freedom. In the process, Huck learns a great deal about himself and about the developing country around him.
The show blends American Sign Language (ASL) with traditional choreography and staging, affording a unique opportunity for deaf and hearing actors to work collaboratively and provide accessibility to a wider audience. In this adaptation, every line and lyric is simultaneously performed in spoken (or sung) English and ASL, and interwoven with music, dance, and storytelling techniques from both hearing and deaf cultures.
The Broadway production earned glowing reviews from New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who wrote that the interplay of the languages on display results in a production where it is impossible to "make a conscious distinction between the two styles of performance.”
According to Pennington Players’ director, Frank Ferrara, assembling the production has been a unique challenge. “Stage directions were modified throughout. Both hearing and deaf actors are alerted to their spoken, sung, or signed cues through a system of nudges, gestures, and offstage cues that have been incorporated into the action. Every line is performed in three different languages -- English, ASL, and music -- each with its own grammatical constructions, conventions, and nuances,” Ferrara explained. “And every moment is accessible to both hearing and deaf patrons.”
For hearing audiences, “Big River”offers Roger Miller’s award-winning musical score, a wholly American blend of country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel styles that features songs such as “Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain,” “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” and “Free at Last.”
The company is pleased to welcome J.W. Guido, a New York-based deaf actor who is also the artistic director of the 30-year-old New York Deaf Theatre, as Huck, with voice by Gary Wellbrock of Trenton, who serves as the narrator and voice of Huck Finn. The production's associate director, Lynn Baskin of Lambertville, who plays the escaped slave, Jim, is a professional ASL interpreter and is working with the deaf actors on cues and choreography.
Other cast members include: ASL performer Noah Buchholz of Princeton as the Duke/Huck’s father, Pap, with voice by Shawn Doremus of Forked River (who also plays Tom Sawyer in this production); Tom Bessellieu of Hamilton as the Duke’s partner; and Jill Bradshaw of Oaklyn as Mary Jane Wilkes. The roles of Huck’s initial caretakers, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, are split among hearing actor Ellen LaCorte of Titusville (Douglas), deaf actor Cindy Palella of Langhorne (Watson), and hearing actor Samantha Kamen of Mercerville.