IM this article to a friend!

November 11, 2004

Deaf West Theatre's 'Big River' mixes singing and signing

From: Boston Herald - Boston,MA,USA - Nov 11, 2004

By Robert Nesti
Thursday, November 11, 2004

There's a most memorable moment in the upcoming production of ''Big River'' that plays at the Wang Theatre from Tuesday through Nov. 21.

Midway through a reprise of ''Waitin' for the Light to Shine,'' the music suddenly stops.The cast, though, still sings in silence, conveying the lyrics with American Sign Language as it had throughout the show; and the audience doesn't miss a syllable.

No one is more pleased by the dramatic effect than Ed Waterstreet, the deaf artistic director of the Deaf West Theatre, who conceived of the idea of performing musicals using a mix of hearing, hearing-impaired and deaf actors; and having the entire production signed in-sync with the spoken and musical performance.

''You can't blame people for being doubtful,'' explained a boisterous Waterstreet through an interpreter at a recent press conference. ''How can deaf people do a musical?''

Waterstreet and his wife, Linda Bove, have been integral to the development of theater for the hearing impaired for the past 30 years, first as actors with the National Theatre of the Deaf and, more recently, as founders of Deaf West, the Los Angeles-based theater they formed 13 years ago.

He turned to musicals a few years ago with a production of ''Oliver!'' and enlisted Broadway director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun as a collaborator.

''Jeff said to me, 'You've got to be kidding' when I first told him of the idea; but I convinced him to meet with me, and we agreed to make this vision a success.''

''Oliver!'' was, and ''Big River,'' their next project, was even more so. It toured the United States and Japan (where it recently played to enthusiastic audiences) this year; and picked up a special Tony Award in New York this season. A second company will set up residence at Ford's Theatre in Washington, next spring for an extended run.

The show, a pop-rock adaptation of Mark Twain's ''Huckleberry Finn'' with a score by Roger Miller, had won a Tony for Best Musical in 1987.

Waterstreet was attracted by the show's cultural mix.

''The reason is very simple: You've got Huck Finn, who is deaf in our show; and the slave Jim, who can hear. Here are the two characters traveling down the Mississippi on a raft. Huck's an orphan, Jim's a runaway slave; two cultures meeting together on a raft in the Mississippi. The story itself is great, the music is wonderful; and it is a natural fit between sign language and voice.It's quite visual, quite poetic.''

But theater wasn't Waterstreet's first love. He attended Gallaudet University where he received a degree in physical education.

As a child, he resented going to musicals with his family, all of whom could hear.

''It wasn't a pleasant experience,'' he said. ''I could see mouths and bodies moving, and barely understood what was going on. But I was forced to go and would often try to back out. I would rather play sports instead - that was more fun for me. I'm a jock at heart.

''There are still a lot of misconceptions and barriers, but the ignorance I grew up with just isn't there anymore. People are very excited to learn American Sign Language. It is offered as a credit course in colleges. Linda and I see how people are communicating across cultures. Deaf actors are more a part of pop culture, you see them more and more in television and movies. And an entire generation grew up with a deaf character on 'Sesame Street.' That's progress.''

Through donor grants, the Wang Center is offering all tickets to ''Big River'' for half-price.

( ''Big River,'' Tuesday-Nov. 21 at the Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets, $12.50-$32.50, are available at the box office, by calling Telecharge, 800-447-7400, or online at )