Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Mark Twain's River of Song
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Rondrell McCormick and Valisia LeKae
Photo by Kevin Berne
An old man smartly dressed in a white, three-piece suit that matches in color his scruffy, full head of hair and bushy mustache ambles gently out and warns us with eyes that twinkle:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot."

Even though none of us are old enough to remember him when he was alive, we all immediately recognize our old friend Mark Twain and his special brand of dry humor (the last clue being his signature bright-red socks). On the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley stage, he is about to revel us with personal memories and stories both delightful and moving about his favorite subject, the Mississippi River—all supported by an ensemble of five musicians who will play and sing the songs that describe Old Man River from its northern-most, forested origins to its New Orleans levees that spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Among those five is one of the evening's co-creators, Dan Wheetman, with the other, Randal Myler, directing this West Coast premiere production that expands in number of cast members and songs a February 2019 cabaret that premiered at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Mark Twain's River of Song, is a mixture of eleven traditional songs reflecting the muddy river's history, people and legacy along with eleven original songs by Dan Wheetman that include ballads, folk songs, and soulful blues—all brimming with the Americana of the nineteenth century.

For many of us, Dan Hiatt not only reminds us of all the pictures we have seen of Mark Twain, but quickly is like an uncanny reincarnation of the actor who had a sixty-three-year run with Mark Twain Tonight!, Hal Holbrook. His voice rattles with an old man's wheeze and wonder through witticisms, one-liners, and short tales—many of which we recognize—as his hands unfold from his lap to accompany the words with their gentle gestures.

When the musicians take over, he watches and listens from his easy chair on the side, sometimes standing up to dance a kind of solitary jig, seemingly just to amuse himself as he reminisces. As he works his way from the north to the south in talking about his best friend the River, Hiatt's chuckling Mark Twain is not only funny and nostalgic but also prone to comment on his most favorite target for humor-laced ridicule—man. "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."

The music of Dan Wheetman that extols the mighty Mississippi is often sung in a voice deep and rich by the songwriter himself, as in the first time we hear his sustained and rolling vowels in "Don't She Roll." As he introduces us to the "muddy waters [that] keep rolling on," photographic scenes of the river from Mark Twain's era splash between two sets of trees dripping in Spanish moss. Those photos are just the first of scores that are part of David Lee Cuthbert's scenic and media design—with the black-and-white pictures of the forests, farms, towns, and people of the river coupled with incredibly colorful Mississippi River sunrises, sunsets, and evening skies that change their hue through his own projection magic and that of lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt. In the background, we also hear the sounds of birds and other water life as part of Jeff Mockus' sound artistry.

And with such surroundings, each member of this ensemble is able to mesmerize us with songs that speak their truths in stories and through images of the lives and times of the Mississippi's bends and shorelines. As Mark Twain boasts of the riverboat pilot ("the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth" and who lives in "a sumptuous glass temple" on his steamboat), Dan Wheetman and Chic Street Man sing in rousing harmony, "When I'm in the wheelhouse, I'm a doggone king" ("King of the River"). Chic is joined by Valisia LeKae in "Big Boat's Up the River" where it becomes quite clear that the future genre of country music has many of its roots in the sounds of African-American slaves' songs that once populated the shores of the Mississippi.

But it is the blues that will best recall the pains and the dreams of those enslaved who worked the cotton fields along the river, with Valisia LeKae bringing a voice that shimmers in a prayerful dream to be on one of those steamboats to freedom in the north. She moves us to near tears while mournfully singing "freedom's a powerful thing" in another of Dan Wheetman's powerful and emotional creations, "Up Round the Bend."

Our Mark Twain does not take us to those more familiar and shameful scenes of the slave-filled South before he first gives us a full tour of the lesser-known, northern and mid-tributaries of the Mississippi. Ms. LeKae tells a tall tale about a "skinny, little" lumberjack who shows up in the forests of the North looking for a job after having turned "Sahara Forest" into "Sahara Desert"—just one of a number of Twain-enriched stories we hear in between music that often also spins its own yarn (like the traditional "The Wild Lumberjack" sung in heart-tugging lament by Rondrell McCormick and Valisia LeKae).

Songs and stories then take us down river to explore bordering farmlands, clusters of shantytowns, and keelboats of working men. With his banjo a'plucking and accompanied by Chic's incredible, hand-on-legs drumming and Valisia LeKae's jig doll dancing on its board, Rondrell McCormick sends all feet in the audience tapping as he sings his crowd-pleasing "Little Old Sod Shanty." But it is his deep well of a voice in "Half a Mile a Day" that makes one want to close eyes and imagine sitting on a summer-steaming porch along the Mississippi, fanning oneself slowing while listening to his soulful reprise about working the land.

These are the sung voices and the played instruments of folks' front porches, hot fields of cotton, and back rooms of gambling halls. In Mark Twain's river journey, there is not a lot of church in the music that Wheetman uses to illustrate the writer's words, but there is a sense of holy and of reverence when it comes to his admiration of the river and its people. That is especially true in a second half extended scene from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in which Valisia LeKae as the wily boy Huck and Rondrell McCormick as the river-wise runaway slave Jim bring Mark Twain's famed novel to life. The snippets of the novel are accompanied by such songs as "Levee Blues" and "Deep River," both of which Chic Street Man so naturally sends swinging through the air on lightly sung notes, only to float just long enough to paint their own, clear scenes of the Mississippi.

Part a nineteenth-century cabaret show, part a travelogue of the past, and part a famed writer's recollections of his life on and around the river, Mark Twain's River of Song is a journey very worth taking in this TheatreWorks Silicon Valley celebration of the human spirit and its quest for freedom, individuality and harmony with one of nature's most beautiful of gifts, the Mississippi River.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's Mark Twain's River of Song runs through October 27, 2019, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets and information are available at and by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.