Regional Reviews: San Francisco
River's End is a Challenging Musical Play
Marin Theatre Company is opening its 2005-2006 season with the world premiere of Chuck Larkin and Cheryl Coons' musical play, River's End. This is a theatrically distinctive and interesting musical that dramatizes two theories of the true-life disappearance of newlyweds Glen and Bessie Hyde.
In 1928 the Hydes set out to navigate the treacherous Colorado River on a wooden raft, a feat well documented by national media including The New York Times and others. Bessie Hyde would have been the first woman to attempt to ride the raging river. Halfway down the river, the Hydes' boat was found fully intact, moored in calm waters with all of their equipment. However, the couple had vanished without a trace. Since then, their mysterious disappearance has been the subject of two television documentaries, two books and popular folklore told to tourists visiting the Grand Canyon.
Cheryl Coons, the book writer and lyricist, heard a National Public Radio account of the disappearance and decided to write a theatrical piece based on the event. She secured the services of Chuck Larkin who has performed in many theatres and cabaret rooms including Wolf Trap and venues around Chicago. The play with music has had several staged readings, including an ASCAP/Disney workshop (where it won a Harold Arlen award) and a Marin Theatre workshop earlier this year. It will be part of New York's National Alliance of Music Theatre festival this weekend.
The musical uses the challenging concept of two couples playing Glen and Bessie, interweaving two of the theories side by side. The production becomes part serious drama, part musical theatre, and part opera, hopefully assembled. Sometimes it works and sometimes the music is atonal. Composer Larkin on piano leads a trio with violin and acoustic bass; they have difficultly fleshing out some of the music. Larkin's score seems influenced by the work of Adam Guettel. There are two plays going on at the same time, and the conversations mesh together along with two river guides who, in addition to their own stories, play all the other characters the Hydes encounter while on their voyage.
Cheryl Coons' drama gives two views on the characterization of Bessie, played by Molly Bell and Dani Marcus. Molly Bell's "Bessie One" is a strong person striving to be the first woman to conquer the river so she can become a headliner on the vaudeville circuit for the accomplishment. With her husband, she sings the upbeat song, "The Amazing Daredevil Hydes." Her "Glen One," played by John Patrick Moore, is a weak individual who has done some river rafting in Idaho but he is not interested in becoming a celebrity. Dani Marcus' "Bessie Two" is the exact opposite. She is a mousy woman who does not want to go on the river while her macho husband "Glen Two," played by Travis Poelle, wants to get into the record books for the fastest person to conquer the treacherous rapids. One can see these new marriages are strained almost to the breaking point.
River's End's second act is better constructed, showing what might have happened to cause the mysterious disappearance of the couple. Especially intriguing are the performances of the two narrators who play various parts. However, it is left to the audience to imagine what happened to the young honeymooners.
River's End has a top flight cast of six actors, all with good vocal chops giving polish performances. Molly Bell (A Little Princess, Memphis, Bat Boy at TheatreWorks) has an inviting voice as the flirtatious wannabe movie star Bessie One. Dani Marcus (2004 SFBATCC award winner for Beggar's Holiday) is winsome as the soulful and meek Bessie Two. She has a deep and poignant sound when singing the score, especially the song "Give Me a Reason."
John Patrick Moore (Beggar's Holiday, Me and My Girl, and Wonderful Town at MTC) as Glen One has good pitch even with the difficult score. He has an exceptional voice in the songs "Reaching the Limit" and "The World He Sees." Travis Poelle (2004 SFBATCC award for The Buddy Holly Story) is the excellent opposite as he portrays an aggressive, vigorous male who loves living on the edge. His harmonies on the songs are skillfully accomplished.
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (Night of the Hunter Sacramento actress) is outstanding, playing various parts such as the river guide, the talkative doddering wife of the owner of a gift shop, and a surprising role at the end of the production. She changes each character like a chameleon changes color. J.D. Nelson (Bus Stop at MTC) is excellent in his many roles, including a river guide and a horny sheriff in the canyon area. He is especially effective as Adolph Sutro who apparently was one of the last persons to see the couple alive.
Giulio Perrone has devised a striking set that is an excellent recreation of a Colorado canyon, with the back stage looking like the red rock walls of the canyon. There are two partial reconstructions of the boats that the couples use and foliage around the stage. The plant life covers the small orchestra on stage. The sound by Norm Kern is very realistic with thunder, rain, waters raging and birds singing. Lighting Design by Kurt Landisman is practical, creating a realistic scene. Cassandra Carpenter has designed authentic costumes for the period. Lee Sankowich's direction is taunt and very down to earth.
River's End plays through October 9th at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or visit www.martintheatre.org.
The next production will be another world premiere - of Scott Kaiser's Splittin' the Raft opening on November 10 and running through December 11th.