An Entertaining Folk Musical History

By Iride Aparicio

Photos By Kevin Bern

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA --  20l9  Regional  Theatre  Tony  Award (R)  winner TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, continues its 50th Season by taking the audience on a "historic musical tour" along the Mississippi River, in the West Coast Premiere of the musical  "Mark Twain's River of Song"

Described by an actor impersonating MARK TWAIN, the musical, written by RANDAL MYLER and DAN WHEETMAN, directed by RANDAL Y MYLER , transports the audience, vicariously, to the year l883 when, TWAIN (DAN HIATT) tells the audience that  at the age of  21,  he worked  as a steamboat pilot in the Mississippi River and as he starts describing what he saw, we see  the sights projected on a screen. behind the stage, as black and white photographs, or as a short movies. At intervals, we also see the people he saw, represented by different actors, playing folk music, or singing the songs, either as a solo singer or by a choir,that he heard sang on the river banks during his trips. Among the songs, in short dramatized skits played by the musicians/actors, we also hear bits of dialogue from the many stories that he later wrote based on his trips. So the  musical is a combination of  MARK TWINE memories from the people he saw (most of them field workers from the plantations in the bank of The Mississipi) and the music he heard, during his trips as a pilot, and during another, longer steamboat trip from  San Louis, Missouri,  to New Orleans,  after the Civil War.

To give the audience a visual idea of the length  of the Mississippi River, hanging over  the back wall of  the stage at The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, where the work is presented, is a large map of the Eastern United States showing the route of  the Mississippi River as a Black line  extending from Lake Itasca, in Northern Minnesota, running down through 10 States emptying into the Gulf of Mexico in New Orleans, Louisiana.   

On the stage, we see a few string instruments piled on a corner on stage left, and on stage right, a  comfortable arm chair next to a small round table covered by a fancy tablecloth, with a candle on top. As MARK TWAIN  (HIATT) stands from that chair, he begins talking to the audience about his life, growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, a town located on the Mississippi's  banks.

And as  MARK TWAIN  (HIATT)  talks, the projections   (Designed by Scenic and Media Designer DAVID LEE CUTHBERT) of  black and white  photographs  show us the sights: the cotton fields, the  plantations, the streets, the cars, the  houses and the casinos, and short films, the steamboats floating along the Mississipi River, ringing a bell and spouting black smoke.,

In between the projections, we hear the music. Some instrumental,   played in a fiddle, banjo, guitar, washboard, harmonica and tambourines. The songs are sang as a solo song or as a choir. There are sad and happy songs which include clapping their hands and stomping their feet as they dance. The musical ensemble includes  VALISIA  LeKAE,  A Tony Awards and Grammy nominated  singer.  TONY MARCUS.  RONDRELL McCORMICK,  CHIC  STREET  MAN, and DAN WHEETMAN.

L-R)  Ensemble: Dan Wheetman, playing banjo, Tony Marcus, playing a fiddle, Chic Street Man (standing front playing guitar) Valisia LeKae, playing the tambourine and Rondrell McCormick playing the washboard.

Composed by DAN WHEETMAN, the music  includes original songs and some traditional folk music with lyrics written by WHEETMAN. Most of the lyrics are about subjects that are familiar to the field workers: "The Wild Lumberjack"  "Rovin' Gambler,"  "River,"   "Cat Fish"  "Going Up River" but there are others in which the character may  reveal to us his/her inner feelings. One of the most soulful songs that night was sang by LeKAE with a lot of feeling. We may define its subject as the lament a hopelessness young girl after being separated from her  sister and family when, at the slave market, she was sold to  a different buyer.

There are 22 songs in the musical and each one of them was well interpreted, in the voices of their singers or in their instruments,  but like in any performance, there are always interpretations,  that the audience likes better for one reason or another, so, it would have helped us critics, if printed  on the program with the name of each song, had been included the name or names of those who interpreted the song or performed it in an instrument, for us to be able to  give them, in writing , the recognition they deserved.  


Using  the timeless Mississippi River as the set of the story,  and the  "voice"  of   the real MARK TWAIN  because  MYLER, the musical's playwright, wrote in the program that he used the words and sayings of TWAIN's  lectures,  books,  and newspapers articles for the actor soliloquy. the story goes on until it end.   

And  until the end, TWAIN's words are witty and humorous  because  MARK TWAIN was a humorous writer.  He  was  born SAMUEL  LANGHORNE  CLEMENS  in Florida, Missouri in November 30, l835. and died on April 21, l9l0.  He spent his early childhood in Hannibal, a town located on the banks of the Mississippi River and dreamed of being a pilot in a riverboat. When he became a pilot at the age of 21, he  changed his name to "MARK TWAIN"  a nautical term  that was the name given to the mark of water in the Mississipi River that was safe for the riverboats to navigate in it.

After the civil world in l861, MARK TWAIN moved to Nevada and started working as a journalist for a newspaper in Virginia City. As a writer,  he travelled around the world.  His humorous pieces included  a number of articles, lectures and books on different subject  but we know him best for two of his books: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

L-R  Rondrell  McCormick (Jim)  and VALISIA LEKAE ( Huckleberry Finn)

 So, it is appropriate that the show ends with a musical skit based on "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" represented by VALISIA LEKAE  playing the role of  Huck,  and RONDRELL McCORMICK playing  the role of Jim, the runaway slave.  The skit was short but allowed LEKAE to fully display  her acting ability and  McCORMICK to display, his sonorous beautiful tone of voice. As a musical, "Mark Twain: RIVER OF SONG" is an entertaining educational piece of American folk music and literature history. It adds another winner production to TheatreWorks.

Mark Twain: RIVER OF SONG will continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA 94041 until October 27, 2019. For information or to order tickets call (650) 463-1960 or go online to theatergoers.