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Arts & Entertainment - October 23, 2019

A cultural cruise

'Mark Twain's River of Song' is a musical journey down the mighty Mississippi

by Karla Kane

Visitors to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts this month can temporarily leave modern life behind and embark on a journey through the American past, thanks to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's West Coast premiere of "Mark Twain's River of Song," a musical tapestry in the form of a steamboat trip narrated by Twain himself.

Directed by co-author Randal Myler, the structure of "River of Song" is largely one of a north-south journey through the antebellum U.S. The trip is guided and punctuated by Missouri-raised Twain's evocative, wise and usually humorous anecdotes about his own life on the Mississippi as well as tidbits from his famous novels, real snippets of oral history from common folk of the 19th century and a pleasant mix of songs both traditional and new, composed by Dan Wheetman, who also performs in the show. Played by Dan Hiatt, Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) is the recognizably avuncular, rascally fellow beloved as one of the United States' most important cultural figures. Hiatt's Twain, proves an amusing, laid-back and insightful host.

Wheetman is joined by Valisia LeKae, Tony Marcus, Rondrell McCormick and Chic Street Man in the ensemble. All of the ensemble members wear many hats (literally and figuratively), not only acting, singing and dancing but playing instruments as well, an old-timey mix of acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins and percussion. LeKae, providing the sole female perspective, deserves MVP honors for her velvety vocals and range to portray everyone from a heartbroken slave to a sprightly Huckleberry Finn.

The voyage takes us to the headwaters of the northern forests of Minnesota, where lumberjacks reign, then to the agricultural territory of the plains states, where farmers toil to make a living and feed the nation. We meet boatmen, gamblers and many more, but the most arresting and interesting parts of the show are in the second act, as the great steamboat rolls south, where we encounter cotton plantations, runaway slaves and a wrenching scene from Twain's masterpiece "Huckleberry Finn" between Huck and his fugitive slave companion Jim, who escape together for a river-raft adventure.

The music, representing an assortment of traditional styles from bluegrass to delta blues and Wheetman's stately country-and-folk compositions, prove a pleasing staged playlist of sorts, and the family friendly show could no doubt make an effective field trip for U.S. history and literature students. The whole thing has a charmingly old-fashioned, mellowly educational vibe. Viewers of the recent Ken Burns "Country Music" documentary on PBS will enjoy hearing some familiar tunes pipe up, including folk standard "The Unfortunate Rake," known by nearly countless other titles as well and here used as "The Wild Lumberjack."

The musical numbers, at the opening weekend performance I attended, sounded sometimes as if the kinks were still being worked out (some booming/feedback issues plaguing the mix didn't help) but the slightly ragtag feeling is appropriate for the folksy setting. It's always fun to see the musicians on stage as part of the action rather than hidden in a pit, especially with this cast giving some lively and engaging performances.

Please, audience members, try to remember to heed the many posted signs and pre-show announcements about turning off mobile devices. You do not want to be the person whose phone started — and wouldn't stop, for an agonizingly long time — ringing during LeKae's most quiet, emotional and poignant monologue, as fellow audience members began to audibly lose patience. Awkward all around, but LeKae gets bonus MVP points for carrying on unruffled.

Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting infuses everything in a nice nostalgic glow, with Jill C. Bowers' costumes (again, with LeKae modeling the most changes) pleasing to the eye. Hiatt as Twain sports exactly the hair and suit you'd hope for and David Lee Cuthbert's set boasts moss-draped oak trees and a variety of scene-appropriate projections.

Due to its pastiche nature, "Mark Twain's River of Song" doesn't get to go, if you'll pardon the water metaphor, very deep into Twain or the themes touched on (more — any? — perspective on the Native American experience would be nice). But overall it's a well-crafted introduction to and enjoyable meander through a quintessential time, place and voice in American culture. And it's a fitting tribute to what is, after all, the show's most important and central character, the mighty Mississippi river itself. Roll on.

What: "Mark Twain's River of Song."

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Oct. 27. Show times vary.

Cost: $35-$95.

Info: theatreworks.org.

Karla Kane is the arts and entertainment editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, The Almanac's sister publication.

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