Next at The Pennington Players are performances of the musical Big River, Roger Miller and William Hauptman’s Tony Award-winning adaptation of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Huckleberry Finn tells the story of Huck (J.W. Guido*, with voice by Gary Wellbrock), a young man who takes a long journey to accompany an escaped slave named Jim (Lynn Baskin) on the latter’s quest for freedom. In the process, he learns a great deal about himself and about the developing country around him.
This production will be based on the 2003 Broadway staging by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Deaf West Theatre, and will blend American Sign Language (ASL) with traditional choreography and staging, affording a unique opportunity for deaf and hearing actors to work in collaboration and providing accessibility to a wide range of audiences. In this adaptation, every line and every lyric is simultaneously performed in spoken (or sung) English and ASL; these languages are interwoven with music, dance, and storytelling techniques from both hearing and deaf cultures, to create a “third language” and resulting in a unique theatrical event.
This is accomplished in a number of ways throughout the production. In some cases, single characters are played jointly and simultaneously by two separate actors (one speaking, one signing). In other cases, hearing actors both sign and speak, or characters interpret for one another. These techniques are combined with traditional interpreting methods to create an enormously varied presentation.
The production is aided by Associate Director Lynn Baskin, who also plays the escaped slave Jim who becomes Huckleberry Finn’s unlikely friend. Mr. Baskin is a professional ASL interpreter and responsible for working with deaf actors to choose (and when necessary, “choreograph”) appropriate signs that both communicate the necessary information and reflect the style of Huck Finn’s place and time. Assistant Director Alison McMullen, an itinerant teacher of the deaf, is responsible for assisting the hearing actors in learning and developing their ASL skills and helping to ensure that the production communicates effectively with deaf audiences.
For hearing audiences, Big River also 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.”
As Huck, the company is pleased to welcome first time Pennington Player J.W. Guido, a New York, NY-based deaf actor who is also the Artistic Director of the 30-year-old New York Deaf Theatre. He joins Baskin (Lambertville, NJ), a veteran of Kelsey Theatre and a 2008 NJACT Award winner for Driving Miss Daisy, and Wellbrock (Trenton, NJ), who serves as the Narrator and voice of Huck Finn, in leading the cast.
The Duke, a drifter and con-man encountered by Huck on his journey down the Mississippi, is played by well-regarded ASL performance artist Noah Buchholz (Princeton, NJ), with voice by Shawn Doremus of Forked River (Mr. Doremus also plays Tom Sawyer in this production, while Mr. Buchholz also serves as one half of Huck’s ne’er-do-well father Pap); the Duke’s partner is played by area favorite Tom Bessellieu (Hamilton, NJ). Mary Jane Wilkes, a beautiful young woman in trouble, is played by Jill Bradshaw of Oaklyn, NJ. 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.
The remaining cast members include (with * denoting deaf actors): Alan Naidoff (Princeton, NJ), Debra Fleetwood* (Plainfield), Sally Page (Princeton), Arnold Aromando (Neshanic Station), Noah Barson (Yardley, PA), May Lynn* (Princeton Junction), Allie DeKorte (Southhampton, PA), E.J. Ferrara (West Windsor, NJ), Jaime Schwartz (Croydon, PA), Lisette Weiland (Lambertville, NJ), and DiAnna Freeman Westcott (Hamilton, NJ). Local performers Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Jamie McMillin, and Aimee Robidoux join the production as offstage vocal support.
NOTE: Every moment of Big River is accessible to both hearing and deaf patrons.
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.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $16 for students and children. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Kelsey Box Office at 609-570-3333 or online. Kelsey Theatre is wheelchair accessible. Free parking is available next to the theater.
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. (Patrons who use Old Trenton Road should allow extra time for the construction detour at the Edinburg intersection bridge).