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Deaf West Theatre Reimagines Hit ’70s Musical Pippin

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In an article which appeared in the Los Angeles Times late in 2001, referring to the award-winning stage production, Big River, a reviewer commented that the voice of the mourning Mary Jane sounded "straight from the hills." The musical is based on the story of Huckleberry Finn, and in the role of Mary Jane (Huck’s girlfriend) was Melissa van der Schyff, a young singer/actress from Victoria, British Columbia, who had acquired a BFA in Acting at the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and studied at the British American Drama Academy in London, where she appeared in Old Heads and Young Hearts at the Drill Hall.

Since that time she has gone from strength to strength: to Broadway, where she won a Tony Award for Special Achievement in Theatre, along with her Big River cast mates; to numerous other productions including films and sitcoms; and, most recently, to An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville at South Coast Rep, and the musical Zhivago at the La Jolla Playhouse. Most recently she has been rehearsing for her role as Catherine, a widow with a young son, in the classic Pippin, which has just opened at the Mark Taper Theatre in LA. 

In a January 18, 2009 story, again in the Los Angeles Times, Karen Wada writes, under the heading, 'A singin', signin' Pippin,' that Deaf West Theatre is trying to conjure magic again at the Mark Taper with a reimagining of the hit '70s musical. “Not so long ago,” Wada goes on to say, "the idea of staging a musical with performers who can't hear music might have seemed crazy. But then Deaf West Theatre offered up its version of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which leaped from a 75-seat house in North Hollywood to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002, to Broadway in 2003. A new art form — one that combines singing, speaking and American Sign Language — was introduced.”

Learning American Sign Language (ASL, or Ameslan) — the dominant sign language of the deaf community in the United States, the English-speaking parts of Canada, and parts of Mexico — in order to act, speak, and sing the part of Mary Jane (as well as provide the voices for some of the other actors) must have been a daunting prospect, but Melissa van der Schyff succeeded brilliantly in Big River. She laughs when she is reminded of the night she might have forgotten her lines if she had not been able to "read" her hands! 

Though she is surely aware that the history of Pippin includes the names of many great performers who have played this role on Broadway, van der Schyff has no need to be intimidated. As a singer, composer, and Independent Music Award finalist, she has many CDs to her credit, including her début pop album, Urban Peasant, an original recording for which she was voted Artist of the Year by fans across the world on Femmusic.com. About the CD, New York City's Show Business Magazine wrote, “If you are looking for something different, Van der Schyff's new twist on pop is a winner on every front.” However, it was in "Freddy," an earlier track, that I heard for myself that "mourning Mary Jane" voice. Her accent is different. It is her own, but that plaintive something is there:

Hey Freddy last night I imagined

that you built yourself a rocket ship.
Blasting through space and time
you went back to the ship where you played mandolin
on African Seas for the troops
so they wouldn't be scared when they hit the front line…

She is singing about her grandfather, and the ship is the Monarch of Bermuda, but she could have been alluding to any one of many ships of dreams, nightmares come true, gateways to hope, or ships of hell. Floating palaces of glamor in their day, built for the rich and famous in peacetime, ships like the Monarch were so overcrowded during World War II, and conditions so horrendous, that it was not unusual for troops to die before reaching the battlefields.

In her new role Melissa van der Schyff has an excellent opportunity to use "that voice" when the heartbroken Catherine learns that Pippin, driven to pursue a personal quest, is leaving her, and she sings "I Guess I'll Miss the Man!"

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Dawn M

    Isn’t she fantastic? It really is wonderful when those who have got, try and share with those that have not. You have no idea how it brightens lives whether deaf, blind or wheel-chair bound. May Melissa go from strength to strength.

  • Marie Warder (author of the article)

    In a message posted on Facebook, Melissa van der Schyff writes:
    “I was wondering if there is any way to amend a part of the article…ASL is the dominant language for the Deaf in the USA, but not in Canada or Mexico. They have their own sign language, thus “ASL”American” Sign Language. These are the kind of facts that are confusing sometimes but can be helpful to educate people. Thank you for the complimentary article though.”

    My response.
    Thank you for brining this to my attention. Your concern is justified, and I trust that in publishing your message, I shall help to correct the info which I obtained directly from Wikipedia. (I see that updates are invited on that website and maybe some public-spirited citizen will feel moved to provide them.)