Musical Hoedown from the Pen of Mark Twain at Two River
Also see Bob's review of Darkness to Light
A hanging and a wedding on the same day
Country-flavored music and lyrics are on hand in Red Bank as the Two River Theatre Company concludes its very successful 2007-2008 season with a lively musical adaptation of Mark Twain's recently (first published in 2001) discovered story, A Murder, A Mystery, and A Wedding. The talented cast, foot stompin' music, and general high spirits provide pleasing entertainment. However, this is not a show for those lacking tolerance for corny country comedy in the unsophisticated style of Judy Canova and "Hee-Haw."
It is 1876 in the fictional town of Deer Lick, Missouri. John Gray is a dirt poor hog farmer. His daughter, Mary, and Hugh Gregory, who works as a clerk in his parent's general store, are in love and plan to marry. Gray's wealthy, unmarried brother, David, has made his niece, Mary, his sole heir. However, David, who is feuding with Hugh for reasons never made clear, stipulates that if Mary marries you – No, not you, Hugh! - she will be disinherited.
In short order, a mustache-twirling, cape and top hat-wearing Stranger, posing as a wealthy Italian count, arrives in town. The Stranger is smitten by Mary, and wants to marry her. Although she has no interest in the Stranger, Mary is placed under pressure by her father to do so in order to save her inheritance and bring the Stranger's wealth to his family.
As the first act draws to a close, we learn that Uncle David has been murdered. The knife in his back belongs to you No, not you, Hugh and there is a trail of blood leading from David's office to Hugh's house. Although he protests his innocence, Hugh is convicted of the murder. In act two, devoid of hope, Mary agrees to marry the Stranger. On her wedding day, Mary learns that Hugh will be hanged that very same day.
The varied country score (which includes bluegrass, ballads and gospel) with music by James Sugg is at its best in the frequent upbeat, toe-tapping ensemble numbers. Two such numbers ("The Story" and "Who Woulda Thought It?") brightly open each of the two acts. The gospel style "G-d's World" is an effective rouser. Lyrics and book are by director Aaron Posner. His lyrics are amusing and sit well on the music. His book provides its share of fun. However, even though the musical is pure hokum, a bit more conviction and true wit would provide ballast for the high spiritedness on which the creators rely. It is fine to have the name "Hugh" confused with the word "you," but, although I didn't do a count, this punny bit of business becomes a groaningly repeated running gag. Damian Baldet plays the Stranger in a comic villain style appropriate to a children's matinee aimed at pre-schoolers. Given that The Stranger identifies himself as something like "Count Napoleon de Picorino de Viscount," the overly broad performance must be just what the director ordered. Posner has elicited fine performances from the balance of the cast, and, particularly in the second act, has maintained an ebullient mood. The simple, but appropriate, pleasing choreography by Karma Camp contributes to the high spirits.
The large wooden barn-like unit set by Tony Cisek has lots of nooks and crannies with platforms at multiple angles and levels. On a slightly elevated platform center stage rear is the four piece orchestra (Leader/Guitar, Bass, Fiddle/Banjo, Accordion/Piano) which provides excellent support.
Erin Weaver proves a delightful comedienne as the perky Sally. The pert Weaver perfectly carries off the show's best comic bit along with Damian Baldet. Mary and The Stranger perform a verbal dance as he repeatedly asks her to marry him, and she repeatedly says "no." The timing and enunciation as they slyly jockey for position and control are delightful. Dustin Sullivan (Hugh), Tom Teti (David/Sheriff), Trip Plymale (John Grey), Bertilla Baker (his wife) and Dan Sharkey (Clem/Hurley) provide detailed, lively performances.
The stage version of A Murder, A Mystery and A Wedding certainly does have a murder and a wedding, but, for some inexplicable reason, all mysteries are cleared up in the first act before the murder even occurs. The reason for that is the real mystery here. A Murder, A Mystery, and A Wedding provides considerable exuberant entertainment. With a bit of re-thinking, it could be even better.
Mark Twain's A Murder, A Mystery & A Wedding continues performances (Eves. Wed.–Sat. 8 pm/Mats. Tues. 10 am/ Wed. 1 pm/ Sat. & Sun. 3 pm) through June 8, 2008 at the Two River Theatre Company (Rechnitz Theatre), 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Mark Twain's A Murder, A Mystery & A Wedding Book and Lyrics by Aaron Posner/Music by James Sugg, directed by Aaron Posner