Review: ‘Mark Twain’s River of Song’ hits all of the right notes

Real down-home, knee-slappin’, “old-timey” music is in vogue right now – right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Just last month Palo Alto Players did right by it with its production of “Bright Star,” and now TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is offering up a slight, but sweet, show with a pinch of Mark Twain’s sly humor thrown in for good measure.

That’s a capsule recap of “Mark Twain’s River of Song,” which took off last Saturday night at the Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts in Mountain View. The opening night audience literally lapped it up.

There’s something quite lyrical about “River of Song,” not least of which is the fact that it traces the history of the Mississippi River beginning, surprisingly, in Minnesota and going south through forests, farmland, rain-soaked shores, slaves loading and unloading boats of both luggage and cargo — all the way to Hannibal, Mo., which just happens to be Mark Twain’s hometown. Some of his descriptive passages – likely taken from his book “Life on the Mississippi” – are quite picturesque and reassuring.

The two men who created this production, Randal Mylar and Dan Wheetman, are the same duo who composed two other works that TheatreWorks offered in earlier years: The Tony-nominated “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” in 2009 and “Fire on the Mountain,” about Appalachian coal miners in 2015.

And, as with the other two, “River” is getting its West Coast regional premier here thanks to TheatreWorks.

It’s a mostly winning formula for the twosome, though parts of Act 1 seem a bit too stagy and repetitious. Act 2, with its long segment aboard the raft that Huckleberry Finn and Jim ride down the Mississippi is more engaging.

But all of the voices heard here are powerful – and all of the musicians are at the top of their form. As Twain, Dan Hiatt is a bit of an enigma. He’s got a slew of physical ticks that may be true of the aging Twain, and he’s got a brilliant way of tossing out a bon mot of humor without missing a beat. One of his best: “I joined the Confederate Army…for two weeks. That’s why they lost the war!”

Though his voice doesn’t really sound as if it would be Twain’s, who really knows? It’s likely most of us think Hal Holbrook’s version of Mark Twain is what he really sounded like.

But the stories of growing up in Hannibal and wanting to be a Riverboat Captain seem so authentic and so heartfelt that it matters not what his voice sounds like. Certainly the handsome three-piece white suit with blue bowtie and chain watch designed by Jill C. Bowers, coupled with the astonishing frizzy white hair and wig Hiatt wears all add to his historical persona.

Yet it’s a tiny mite of a woman, Valisia LeKae, who usurps the stage whenever she’s given the chance. In a surprisingly large breadth of roles, mostly female although some male (like Huck Finn), she comes closest to being the real heart and soul of “River.”

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Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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