Big River

Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
a Kate West review
music and lyrics by Roger Miller; book by William Hauptman
directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun
a Deaf West Theatre Production
at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
January 11 -23, 2005; Call 213-628-2772

Rarely does a stage production come along so fascinatingly innovative that you remember it for days. The Deaf West Theatre's adaptation of "Big River", now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, is just such a piece.

Roughly half the performers are deaf, first of all, already an unusual device in a musical. The speaking actors can all sign, resulting in a delightful collaboration of seamless synchronicity. Each deaf actor has a speaking partner shadowing him or her 'voicing ' their lines. It all works remarkably well, as evidenced by the wonderful choreography of Jeff Calhoun (also the director). Some of the hearing actors are on their own, such as Michael McElroy, who gives a very moving performance as the runaway slave Jim. He signs for himself.

Not only is a musical version of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" an interesting choice, but it takes on an added dimension of emotional intensity in this particular production. And it stays true to the original text of the beloved story. Mark Twain is the narrator, impeccably and commandingly portrayed by Daniel Jenkins, who voices the character of Huck (played by the delightful and extraordinarily talented Tyrone Giordano). He relates the entire story, beginning with Huck's escapades with Tom Sawyer (Benjamin Schrader), his running away from Widow Douglas (Cathy Newman) and helping Jim escape slavehood, despite his uneasy conscience. Huck was brought up to believe it is a sin to free a black slave but his adventures with Jim teach him the inhumanity of that belief and he vows to stay true to Jim, even if it means hell and damnation for himself, a seemingly very powerful deterrent.

Along the way, he has to address his own history, especially with his father, Pap, signed by Troy Kotsur and voiced by Erick Devine. This character is the most delightful of all because the two actors who portray him work so well together. When one succumbs to the devil drink and takes a swig out of the jug, the other wipes his mouth. They move in perfect harmony and are dressed in identical rags. It is a very clever device. Huck runs away from his drunken father, never hoping to find a decent life, but accepting his present wild existence.

Later, Huck and Jim encounter two scoundrels, the Duke (signed by the versatile Troy Kotsur and voiced by James Judy) and the King (Erick Devine), who impress him tremendously at first, but he soon learns that although they talk pretty fancy they are dishonest men and not worthy of his or Jim's friendship. They try to trick everyone they meet. Huck helps one victim, the lovely Joanna Wilkes (signed by Alexandria Wailes and voiced by Melissa Van Der Schyff), escape the two criminals and as a result most of the characters are redeemed, including the slave Jim, who to Huck's initial astonishment, has the same human feelings for his own family as do white folk.

Jeff Calhoun is to be profoundly commended for this amazing production. All the actors are acutely aware of each other and work in harmonious precision together. Threre are no weak moments and no weak actors. All the musical numbers are show-stomping fun and one even ends in silence, with the entire cast signing together which will send a chill up your spine. It would have been interesting had the final moment on stage ended in silence as well, since there were a good number of deaf actors and audience members and a notable reference to deafness in the production itself. The original book is of course, a defining statement about ignorance and intolerance and thus a perfect venue for this theater company.

It earned a much deserved that standing ovation on opening night and proves to be a huge hit with audiences, based on overheard post-play discussions. Tip: in the world of the non-hearing, applause is signified by fluttering your hands above your head. (Not to worry, all will become clear if you attend). It looks like they will have sold-out houses for their entire run. And well they should. Read more!


a kate west review
written and directed by Dan Goggin
at Theatre West,
3333 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, 90068
January 20, 2005 for 7 weeks only
contact (323) 851-7977 or

Singing and dancing nuns are always funny, especially to lapsed Catholics, so the musical “Nunsense” is inevitably a crowd pleaser. On the other hand it can also come across a bit tired as in Theatre West’s latest production of this perennial favorite starring stage veterans Betty Garrett (best known as the feisty landlady on television’s “Laverne and Shirley”), Bridget Hanley, Barbara Mallory, Lee Meriwether (one of the sexy elite chosen to play Catwoman back in the day), Rhonda Stovey and Sandra Tucker.

The cast is delightful, each member a gifted and experienced actress who knows how to hold an audience in the palm of her hand, yet even they almost cannot overcome the trite material. The story begins with the Little Sisters of Hoboken holding a fundraiser to bury four of their order who succumbed to bad soup, now sitting in kitchen refrigerators. The rest of the story is simply variety numbers, one after the other, until random coincidences solve all of the problems in a rather flimsy manner.

Each nun has a solo number in the spotlight, usually reflecting her inner desires and musings. Lee Meriwether shines as Sister Robert Anne, the street-smart nun from Brooklyn whose effortless banter and fantastic stage presence hold the audience captive. She is truly the best thing in the show, a terrific lady and consummate entertainer. She’s old school. Betty Garrett is endearingly sweet as Sister Julia, the cook who poisoned her fellow sisters and can’t seem to get back on the right track although the new material written especially for her seems a bit forced. Writer/Director Dan Goggin might have been better off giving the script a complete overhaul. Mother Superior is Sandra Tucker as Sister Regina, who oversees the whole evening and has an amusing “drunk” scene. The rest of the cast, Bridget Hanley, Barbara Mallory and Rhonda Stovey are also strong and take turns addressing the audience and upholding the reality of a local high school benefit show.

One of the more distracting elements is the set by Joseph M. Altadonna and Daniel Keough. It is the set of “Grease,” supposedly left there by the high school students who are allowing the sisters to hold a benefit on their off night. It would have been much better had the stage been simply a high school auditorium setting. As it is, the background does not fit in with the story. Also the constant topical references and inside jokes grow a bit tedious. The company is obviously thrilled to be working with local celebrities but we don’t need to be reminded of it every other scene. All in all, the women are greatly entertaining but the show is a little too long. It is amusing to have them venture into the audience every once in a while, turn on the lights and talk to us but the show can be half as long and still tell its simple story. The silly resolution at the end is quite sudden and again, rather far-fetched. If you can sit through the evening, be my guest. The women are worth it but the story is not.

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a Kate West review
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne
at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles
contact UCLA Central Ticket Office (310) 825-2101 or
Running December 15 – January 2, 2005

Matthew Bourne, that brilliant British choreographer sensation, once again wows Los Angeles audiences with his revival of his 1992 “Nutcracker!” at Royce Hall this holiday season. Known for his wildly flamboyant and uniquely witty adaptations of popular ballets such as “Cinderella” and “Swan Lake” (one of the few outstanding productions seen in Los Angeles that truly deserved a standing ovation), he brings a once-in-a-lifetime experience to audiences with each new show.

This version the “The Nutcracker” places the children in a creepy sterile orphanage where Clara fantasizes about a nutcracker coming to life and taking her to fabulous new experiences. Encountering outlandish characters along the way, (exquisitely costumed in fantastic designs by Anthony Ward, who is also responsible for an incredible set, which at one point includes a giant fully pillow), she returns from Sweetieland empowered to make her escape. Dancing among orphans, Princess Sugar, Prince Bon-Bon, Humbug Bouncer, Queen Candy, Cupids and many more, Clara’s dance highlights include spectacular numbers on a frozen lake and on a huge pink wedding cake. Although Clara loses her love in the fantasy world, he does exist as her savior in the real one. Too numerous to list, Scott Ambler, Etta Murfitt, Shelby Williams, Anabelle Dalling, Rachel Lancaster, Vicky Evans, Alan Vincent and Adam Galbraith are among just a few of the incredibly talented dancers.

“Nutcracker!” is such a simple story it does not need much explanation, merely a recommendation to see it as soon as possible. This production is absolutely a refreshing twist on a timeless Christmas tradition. Rest assured that if Matthew Bourne is involved, you are in for a rare treat and will see something you will remember forever. An absolute must for all family members, please try to fit it into your busy holiday season. You can then tell your grandchildren you saw an early Matthew Bourne. It will not disappoint you.

Pytor Illych Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Complete Ballet
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