TheatreWorks’ newest show, Mark Twain’s River of Song, is a laid back look at the world depicted in Mark Twain’s novels and memoirs, as narrated by the author himself. The production features three musicians on stage as part of the story who play a mix of old spirituals and new songs written for the show. Held together by only the loosest of plots, the play feels like a relaxed ride down the Mississippi River that Twain loved so much.
This show can’t really be judged by some of the same criteria as other plays and musicals because it is really in its own category. It’s more of a musical review with a man playing Mark Twain reading to you from the corner. There’s not so much a plot as an explanation of the world along the Mississippi in the mid-19th century. The spoken words of the show are largely taken directly from Twain’s writings and lectures along with some oral histories of people who also lived in that place and time. The authenticity of the words really shine throughout the production, unfortunately this made the songs written specifically for the show stand out as not being quite as good despite matching the style of the traditional songs.
Throughout the show, I felt as if I ought to have a drink in my hand to better join in the relaxed feel of the actors on stage. The show ends up feeling more like you wandered into a local bar where a few great musicians and a Mark Twain impersonator also happen to be. It’s laid back and exciting, almost vibrating with the spark of improvisation despite being scripted.
The musicians are all incredible. Each one plays a variety of instruments throughout the show, everything from guitar to banjo, fiddle to washboard. I was particularly impressed by Tony Marcus who rarely spoke but switched between instruments constantly and expertly.
Actor Rondrell McCormick didn’t get many chances to shine in the first act, but that changed in act two. His performance as Jim, the runaway slave man from Huckleberry Finn, was deeply moving and raw. The character of Jim often gets flattened in stage and screen interpretations to focus on Huck. But even though only a few scenes from the book were portrayed in this show, the moments chosen and McCormick’s emotive performance really added heart to the play as a whole and gave the character of Jim the respect and dignity he deserves.
Dan Wheetman also stood out for being the composer of the show’s original songs and co-author of the show. His solo songs were touching and heartfelt, but often didn’t stand out amongst the other songs, cherry picked from the best of the 19th century. On another stage, he might have stood out more. However, he was sharing the stage with so many amazing actors that he looked almost mediocre by comparison.
Hands down, no question, Valisa Lekae stole the show. If you look at her history, that really shouldn’t be a surprise. She’s been nominated for Tony and Grammy Awards in the past and shined in TheatreWorks productions as well as on Broadway. In this show, your eyes can’t help but go back to her again and again, as her performance is just incredible. She switches characters more often than any other actor on stage, playing everything from an emancipated slave woman to a lumberjack to Huckleberry Finn. Her vocals stand out in every song, capturing your heart and drawing you into the struggles and emotions of the characters on stage. No actor on stage was bad or a poor singer, Lekae is just so much better that she makes the rest look weaker in comparison.
I was also impressed by her physicality throughout the show as she quickly changed between male and female characters. When playing women, she kept her torso stiffer to reflect the corsets women of that era would have been wearing, but immediately relaxed when playing male characters. It was a subtle change, but it really added to the feeling of the era of the piece.
I cannot close out this review without mentioning Dan Hiatt in the role of Mark Twain himself. His performance was the grounding mainstay that this show needed. His narration was just the throughline the production needed to tie it all together and his delivery of Twain’s words perfectly fits with the tone and style of the famous author. Hiatt manages to make you feel like Mark Twain came back from the grave specifically to chat with you at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
In summary, the show is not a traditional musical or play and that may be jarring if you are not prepared for it. However, if you go into the show with the expectation of an almost dinner-theater-like relaxed atmosphere with incredible actors and musicians, this show is a wonderful break from the norm. It hits its emotional marks with precision and Lekae and Hiatt’s performances elevate this show to another level.
TheatreWorks’ production of Mark Twain’s River of Song plays now through October 27, 2019 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street. Tickets range from $30 to $100, with discounts available for educators, seniors, active military and patrons under 35 years old. The show runs about an hour and 40 minutes with one intermission and utilizes theatrical haze.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne