Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
The Deaf West Theatre production of Big River has been enchanting audiences throughout the country since its initial staging in Los Angeles in 2001, so the production’s current triumph in Boston – the city where the original production of Big River began in 1984 – comes as a surprise to no one. Sure, there are quibbles to be had with this production: the contrapuntal sections of the opening number are gone, as is Tom Sawyer’s big solo, “Hand for the Hog”; the production is really too intimate to play a gigantic house like the Wang; most egregiously, the Wang’s notoriously horrible sound system makes everyone sound pre-recorded, although in a production where half of the performers’ voices are provided by actors across the stage, perhaps this effect puts everyone on equal footing. Quibbles aside, the result is a stirring example of musical theatre at its best.
On a more personal note, I was excited to see Big River‘s return to Boston, because the show’s visit here on her first national tour back in 1986 was my very first trip to see a musical outside of community theatre. And I was similarly excited to see that much has been done to ensure this production of Big River was similarly suited to serve as an introduction to the theatre for a new generation of youngsters. Much has been made of the generosity of the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Foundation, which has provided a grant to fund the accessibility programs and activities for the tour’s Boston stop, as well as the anonymous donations which have cut ticket prices in half for the entire Boston run. Let’s hope they start a trend. There’s a lot more being done in the realm of community outreach by the Wang for this production that also deserves note, namely, their new Family Series.
The Wang Center Family Series, also known as “Artopolis,” kicks off with Big River and continues on with A Year with Frog and Toad, The Little Prince, and Cirque Dreams. The series brings with it more than a “package discount” for families. It’s been well-designed to address the needs of theatre-going families. In addition to the expected performance guides (more on that in a moment), the program is offering kid-friendly talk backs, family-oriented pre-show parties (“so you don’t have to worry about feeding the family between soccer games and curtain times,” to quote their website), backstage tours and more. Participation in Artopolis does require a $50 “membership,” and while it’s unclear whether those who’ve missed the first production of the season will have the opportunity to join the season-in-progress (and good luck getting a human being on the phone), it’s certainly worth pursuing.
Now, about those performance guides. If the Big River guide is any indication, this is a series to collect and save. The twenty-page booklet, prepared by Laura Dougherty on behalf of the Suskind Young at Arts program, goes far beyond the expected plot summery and vocabulary list. Nearly every page features a “Try This!” sidebar, encouraging young theatergoers to go deeper into issues raised by the play, from the point of dual casting to the influence of American artists on the production design. Talkin’ Broadway readers will be particularly happy to know there’s an entire page on theatre etiquette, including the best-worded encouragement not to speak during the performance that I’ve ever read. There’s even an entire page entitled “After The Show” encouraging readers to learn more by visiting a library for books by and about Mark Twain, learning more about Deaf West, or even visiting this very website (although an unfortunate typographical error in our address may prevent too many new readers from following through on that suggestion). This guide was based on a “Discovery Journal” produced by the Los Angeles organization Performing for Los Angeles Youth (PLAY), and I suspect similar resources will be available at other stops on the tour. Whether you are a kid, have a kid, or once were a kid, I highly recommend asking an usher to find you one at whatever stop you catch the tour.
Big River at the Wang Theatre, November 16 – 21, 2004, the first in the four-show Wang Center Family Series. The Family Series continues with A Year With Frog and Toad, January 13 – 16, 2005.