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December 24, 2002

This 'River' is surging forward

From: Calendar Live, CA - 24 Dec 2002

Deaf West's production of "Big River" finds changes on its way to the Mark Taper Forum -- and beyond.

By Don Shirley, Times Staff Writer

The musical "Big River" is named after the mighty Mississippi, which permeates the show's "Huckleberry Finn"-based script. And the journey of L.A.'s new production of "Big River" is beginning to resemble the Mississippi's path.

The production began in a little northern spring -- the 90-seat Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. The brook then flowed southeast and merged with a major western tributary, the Mark Taper Forum. Now it's gearing up to join forces with a tributary from the East -- that is, somewhere in New York.

Yes, L.A.'s "Big River" could find a home in the Big Apple. Deaf West officials met last week with three New York producers.

But the production has already come a long way. It's the first show to be transferred from a small L.A. theater to the 750-seat Taper, where it's playing through Jan. 5.

Most of the major changes in the show, said director Jeff Calhoun, stemmed from the necessity to move from a tiny stage, in which the audience and cast faced each other straight-on, to a much larger stage that thrusts into the audience, creating more of a U-shaped configuration.

"The sight lines are drastically different with people sitting on the sides," Calhoun said of the Taper. "Ninety-five percent of the show plays from every seat," but "there is that inevitable 5%. The seats on the side are the ones that lose out."

This issue is more crucial in "Big River" than in most Taper shows. The show's ample sign language must be clearly visible to deaf theatergoers.

Specially coded tickets made front and center seats available for deaf and hearing-impaired theatergoers (and possibly hearing companions) for $35 -- the same as the lowest regular ticket price, normally used for side-section seating at less popular performances times.

Charlie Marmo, a deaf theatergoer who saw the show for the first time at the Taper, said he was seated in the middle section of the upper level, and the signing was clear throughout. Herb Larson, a Deaf West board member, saw the show at Deaf West and then twice at the Taper. In the fourth row at the Taper, he said, "the signing was much clearer and easier to follow" than it was in the 10th row, but even in the seat farther back, "with a little more effort, I could see pretty clearly."

Another deaf theatergoer, John Koste, praised the signing except for the finger-spelling of names by Scott Waara, the Taper's Mark Twain.

As of early December, 936 of the coded tickets had been sold, out of a total of 41,699 tickets to the Taper production.

Beyond the need to make the signing clear, Calhoun also had to expand the show without overproducing it. He and set designer Ray Klausen tackled a model of the set "with a pair of scissors and Scotch tape. We were like kids in art class."

The set's main motif is the same as at Deaf West -- oversized blow-ups of pages of the text of "Huckleberry Finn." But there are more of them now, and they're bigger and move more. Some float overhead, which, Calhoun says, not only "accentuates the vertical luxury of the theater," but also "puts our own roof on the space and brings down the ceiling."

Illusions of Huck and Jim's raft and the Mississippi itself also were expanded. The raft was only a foot from the riverbanks at Deaf West; at the Taper, it's about three feet.

Cast changes were made too. When the Ovation Award nominations were announced last fall, two hearing actors in the Deaf West "Big River," Bill O'Brien and James Black, received nods for playing Mark Twain and the slave, Jim. Both were replaced for the Taper.

Deaf West artistic director Ed Waterstreet felt O'Brien, who is also the company's producing director, wouldn't have time to act and serve as a producer of the show. So O'Brien chose to produce, reasoning that an actor could more easily be replaced.

That the actor now playing Mark Twain, Waara, is a Tony winner had no bearing on the casting decision, Calhoun said.

Black is understudying the Taper's Jim, Rufus Bonds Jr., a Broadway veteran who played Mufasa in L.A.'s "The Lion King." Black had appeared in only two plays before "Big River."

"I was a little disappointed," Black said. "But just being there is a great opportunity for me. I was enamored that it kept going. If it goes further, I'd love to be a part of it." Black is better paid as a Taper understudy than he was as a star at Deaf West.

Another Tony winner, Phyllis Frelich, who is deaf, joined the cast in a small role after another deaf actress left in order to do a TV show.

The Deaf West cast had nine deaf and nine hearing actors, while the Taper cast has 10 hearing actors and eight deaf. Allen Neece, who is deaf and played the Duke at Deaf West, is now the understudy for Troy Kotsur, also deaf, who added the Duke to his existing duties as Huck's Pap. One more hearing and singing actor was added to boost the choral sound in the larger hall.

Perhaps the most noticeable piece of new staging at the Taper -- and one of the most praised -- is a moment when the sound suddenly drops out of the cast's vigorous singing and signing of "Waiting for the Light to Shine" -- but the signing continues, in total silence. Calhoun said he added this scene during technical rehearsals, just a couple days before previews began.

It's an example of how much of the show's choreography, for which Calhoun won one of his two Ovations (the other was for directing), is actually based on signing. "I didn't think of it as choreography at first," he said. "But so many people told me they liked the choreography, I had to figure out what they were talking about. And if you do equate sign language and dance, it's a ballet -- it never stops."

Calhoun hopes the production's ultimate home will be "a modest, intimate Broadway house," with 900 to 1,100 seats. "You have to be able to hear with your eyes," he said. Because most Broadway houses are proscenium-style, he would have to adapt his staging again.

If the production does move, Calhoun said, the 1985 musical's original librettist, William Hauptman, has agreed to work on the adaptation. "Which is great," Calhoun said, "because I don't fancy myself a great writer. Up to now, all I had was my eraser."

Reached at his Brooklyn home, Hauptman said he thought Deaf West did "a tremendous job," judging from what he saw at the Taper on opening night. "I can't say I think it surpasses the original, but the signing adds poignancy. I myself didn't realize how many references there are to someone being deaf in the original story."

However, a few restorations of original "Big River" text might be made, he said, in the interest of clarifying the story line.

Rocco Landesman was among the New York producers who met with Waterstreet and O'Brien. He also was the original "Big River" producer and is now one of Broadway's major powers, as president of the producing and theater-owning Jujamcyn Organization. Landesman said several moments in the Deaf West script were not clear enough, citing Huck's ruse in which his fellow townspeople believe he's dead and a later scene in which Huck tears up a letter.

"There are moments that are very moving," Landesman said, "without being Broadway-ready. The musical values have to be bumped up" to produce a bigger Broadway sound.

Not that "Big River" would go directly to Broadway. Landesman said it should go into a less costly nonprofit New York theater, with a guaranteed group of subscribers and then transfer to Broadway if reviews and sales warrant a move. Commercial off-Broadway venues "may work artistically but not economically," Landesman said.

Whatever happens in the future, "Big River" is not as likely to receive as glowing a review as one that came from Sheri Farinha Mutti. She's a deaf woman who brought her 9-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who can hear, to the Taper from their home near Sacramento.

Mutti recalled that at one point in the show's second half, when a slave woman's daughter is being sold to a distant owner, a tearful Alexandra looked up at her mother and signed, "Mommy, can you hear her voice? It's sooo powerful!" Mutti replied, "Is it? I can feel the power in her sign language vibrating through the room."

"We both held hands in that intense moment," Mutti said, "loving and cherishing our bond."

'Big River'

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Ends: Jan. 5

Price: $35 to $50

Contact: (213) 628-2772; deaf community information and charge: TDD (213) 680-4017

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times