Big River Rides High At Taper
REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- The production of BIG RIVER marks the first time in its 35-year history that the Mark Taper Forum has mounted a show that was first done at an Equity-waiver theatre. Even more remarkable is the fact that BIG RIVER is the work of Deaf West, the first permanent professional resident theatre for the deaf, hard of hearing and hearing in the Western United States.

Deaf West, which is headed by Ed Waterstreet, a deaf actor who toured for many years with the National Theatre of the Deaf, opened its L.A. doors in 1991 and began producing plays with mixed casts--both hearing and non-hearing actors, some of whom communicated to each other (and the audience) via sign language, even as they spoke the dialogue.

Within a decade, Deaf West became one of the best little theatre companies in L.A., as evidenced by the many awards it has won and by the loyal audience it has built among both the hearing and non-hearing. In 2002 Deaf West's Big River was named Outstanding Production by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle and it is this production that has been remounted by the Taper, beefed up by the Taper's financial resources, resulting in much more elaborate sets, costumes and lighting, plus some helpful cast changes.

Big River is not an original work by Deaf West. With music & lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman, Big River, an adaptation of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, won a Tony Award in the mid-80s and has been widely produced around the USA. Miller's music is superb and Hauptman's book doesn't shy away from Huck's painful confrontation with slavery, though of course the show is mostly an upbeat entertainment vehicle.

But what excellent entertainment it is, thanks to Jeff Calhoun's direction and choreography, and to the work of the large, gifted cast, especially Tyrone Giordano as Huck, Rufus Bonds, Jr. as Jim, Scott Waara as Mark Twain (and voice of Huck), Gwenn Stewart as Alice, Lyle Kanouse and Tony Kotsur in a multiplicity of roles. Together these multi-talented performers sing, dance and act with joy and elan, managing at the same time to sign their words and emotions to the audience, many of whom signalled their love and approval right back.

(Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., call (213) 628-2772. Deaf community, TDD (213) 680-4017, NOTE: there is a strong possibility that BIG RIVER transfer to Broadway in early 2003).