Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A musical for deaf people? Why subject an irreverent novel like Huck Finn to the blustery reverence of Broadway, only to translate it painstakingly into American Sign Language for the sake of people who can -- and should! -- just borrow the damn book from the library and enjoy the sound of Huck's voice as Twain set it down on paper? Yet it works: Thirteen members of the sprawling cast have dialogue but never say a word; in each case a "voice" actor comes on to help perform, while the deaf actor delivers his lines in ASL. This method adds a lot of stage business to the show, which director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun and his assistant, Coy Middlebrook, mitigate through rhythmic movement and clever casting. Tyrone Giordano plays an engaging Huck, with voice assistance from Daniel Jenkins, who wanders the stage in a Mark Twain costume. Erick Devine and Troy Kotsur play a hilarious two-man Pap, Huck's father; Michael McElroy, in his own voice, plays a compelling Jim. When Jim and Huck set off on the raft at the end of the first scene, the rave-up "Muddy Water" might have become oversweet in the throat of another singer, but McElroy makes it infectious, and even Huck Finn purists will admit that this strange musical has captured some of the novel's essence. Through July 10 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $30-85; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed June 23.
Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story. Among the honored too-early-dead of rock 'n' roll, Buddy Holly is untouchable. Not only did he help invent the genre, but he also helped invent the too-early death. His legacy is obvious in his music -- it's been covered by the Beatles (Paul McCartney has for years owned the rights to all of Holly's songs), the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, Blondie, and so on, and alluded to, consciously and un-, by countless others. Although it's not immediately evident from the unimaginative title, Buddyis committed to being (and celebrating being) alive -- so much so, in fact, that it comes off as peculiarly hyper. The book by Alan Janes is a pastiche of feel-good, PG-rated stuff, but true enough, it rocks. In appearance, sound, and mood, Buddy evokes a special age in American music, the forward-looking mid-'50s, when a kid like Holly was thrilling to behold. It does no harm to remember the momentum he imparted. Better still to rediscover his musicianship. Through July 11 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-63; call 321-2900 or visit www.buddyrocks.com. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 16.
The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Nov. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.
Master Class. One reason people use the word "diva" too often nowadays is that the notion of great women being defined by great performances has made great fodder for modern dramatists. Not far beneath Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., the pinnacle of diva dramaturgy, is Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning 1996 play Master Class. The subject here, in a command performance by Rita Moreno, is the aching soul of superstar Maria Callas. But the show is also a valentine to the opera, beautiful bitch that she is. McNally knows how to orchestrate for human instruments. His play is agreeably operatic, and director Moisés Kaufman planes the lines of its shapely form with affection. Based on classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early '70s, the action is an imparting of her earned wisdom. She's that dazzling -- the brutal teacher we've all had or wanted. Among the three students, strong singers all, Sherry Boone's Sharon is the real crowd-pleaser; the arc of her creative process is the most impressive and the most human. Mark Wedland's design and David Lander's lighting make good use of a deep, high-ceilinged stage to reveal a few stirring glimpses of grandeur. And Moreno, firmly rooted and lifting her face to gather the light, makes a big room feel small. "The real world.' Brutal expression, brutal place," she declares as Callas, edifying performers everywhere. Through July 25 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.