BWW Review: MARK TWAIN'S RIVER OF SONG at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is a Musical/Historical Ride Down the Mighty Mississippi Guided by Famed Chronicler Mark Twain
Mark Twain's River of Song
Directed by Randal Myler
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
The home-spun humor of Mark Twain, the magnificence of the Mississippi River and foot-stomping Americana folk tunes merge beautifully in this west Coast premiere of Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman's musical and historical journey as seen through the eyes of the river's greatest chronicler- Mark Twain. With his trademark witticisms and the sumptuous music, River of Song unfolds like a magical trip down the river, from its headwater beginnings in the rugged timberland of Minnesota to its emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at the slave auctions in New Orleans.
Heading the stellar cast is Bay Area great Dan Hiatt (The 39 Steps, Twentieth Century) as Mark Twain, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Twain with his trademark white suit, mustache and cigar. Using dialogue taken directly from Twain's novels, lecture and essays, Haitt delivers these bon mots with authenticity and charm. When asked about where to go after death, Twain says "heaven has the better climate, but hell has the better company." When speaking of his re-telling of popular American folk tales, Twain says "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story".
Twain relates a memory of his running away from home at fourteen to apprentice as a steamboat pilot and the ensemble breaks into a trio of Dan Wheetman originals, "Don't She Roll", "She's Coming to Town" and "King of the River". The songs extol the image of life on the river, the freedom of travel, the excitement of a steamboat rolling into town and the great beauty of the river itself. The musicians play a central role by enhancing Twain's snippets with a travelogue of early American folk music, from traditional delta blues, river songs and African American slave tunes.
Dan Wheetman wrote eleven of the twenty-two song score, the musicians using all form of country instruments like fiddles, steel guitars, washboards and spoons. The ensemble includes noted bluesman, performer and arranger Chic Street Man (Polk County, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues), actor/musician Tony Marcus (Fire on the Mountain. It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues), actor Rondrell McCormick and Wheetman. The music moves from ballad ("Up Around the Bend"), blues ("Levee Blues") to folk tales ("Stackolee"), the sounds are pure Americana that lay the foundation of modern country and folk to the electric sounds of British blues espoused by Led Zeppelin.
Grammy and Tony nominee Valisia LeKae rounds out this incredible cast and provides the female perspective of characters affected by life on or around the river. She sings of a slave wishing to escape her condition by stealing her passage on a steamboat headed for the Ohio River and into the free North, or the poor wife of a farmer to young Huck Finn. Rondrell McCormick shares the speaking/singing roles as Jim from Huck Finn to a bodacious dockhand, poor farmer to lumberjack.
Mark Twain's River of Song, based on his memoir Life on the Mississippi and Twain's other writings, shares his love of the majesty of the river, recounts the commerce and accompanying expansion and the lives of those who made their living off the river and adjoining lands. Through song we hear the stories of gamblers, farmers, dockhands, shanty boys and lumberjacks. It's the original jukebox musical, a genre so popular in modern theatre. Beautifully staged by scenic and media designer David Lee Cuthbert and lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt with costumes by Jill C. Bowers, director and creator Randal Myler lets the strength of the material shine.
Mark Twain's River of Song continues through October 27, 2019 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets available at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960.
Photos by Kevin Berne