From left, Dan Wheetman, Tony Marcus, Chic Street Man, Valisia LeKae and Rondrell McCormick sing up a storm in “Mark Twain’s River of Song” in Mountain View. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Tunes flow freely in ‘Mark Twain’s River of Song’

But TheatreWorks show could add focus on great writer’s words

The American roots music just keep rollin’ in “Mark Twain’s River of Song” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

And the huge background projections — video and old black-and-white photographs — help set the scene of life along the Mississippi, from North to South in the 19th century.

Creators Randal Myler (director) and Dan Wheetman (musical director) put this show together using well-chosen fragments of Twain’s writing (from novels, essays and lectures, as the program explains) as well as from oral histories by enslaved people and white workers (lumberjacks, farmers and others) along the banks of the river. The text is sometimes funny, sometimes lilting and poetic, sometimes heartbreak.

Among the 22 songs that comprise the two acts, about half are by Wheetman; the rest are traditional tunes such as “Rovin’ Gambler” and “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.” A terrific trio (Wheetman, Tony Marcus and Chic Street man) play s a variety of instruments from harmonica to fiddle, with not one weak or misplaced tune in the bunch.

Actors Valisia LeKae (with an exceptionally sweet voice and graceful stage presence) and an equally impressive Rondrell McCormick sing, sometimes, exquisitely, a cappella, and play various small roles, including Huck and Jim in an affecting river-raft scene from “Huckleberry Finn.” LeKae’s several brief monologues as enslaved women are especially poignant.

As for Mark Twain himself: Actor Dan Hiatt is a dead ringer for the Twain that is familiar to us from photographs. Nattily dressed in a three-piece white suit with a blue bow-tie and red socks, and sporting a head of fluffy white hair and a mustache, he looks every inch the famed writer and effortlessly captures Twain’s wit and low-key charm. (Twain says he’s pushing 80, and that’s the only exercise he needs.)

But Hiatt is woefully underused here. He has nothing much to do except watch the others from the sidelines and occasionally offer a clever bon mot or a bit of narration. Which, being Hiatt, he of course does beautifully.

Pleasures abound — the music, the acting, the excellent visuals — but there’s no forward momentum, no clear raison d’être.

And the show is altogether too short; each act is only 45 minutes. To be left wanting more is not necessarily a bad thing. However, this riverboat journey is top-heavy with music, and wonderful as that is, it could use more substance and structure, and more Twain.

REVIEW

Mark Twain’s River of Song

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

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

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 27

Tickets: $30 to $100

Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org

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