Mark Twain’s memoir, Life on the Mississippi, from 1883 has been adapted as a musical by Philip W. Hall and is presented for a limited run by the WorkShop Theater Company now through November 23rd. Much of the tall tales, political commentary and anecdotal tour of the Mississippi has been dismissed to focus on young Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) as he talks a riverboat pilot into making him an apprentice, or “cub” pilot as it was called. Sam’s brother Henry scores a job as a cabin boy and the pair of brothers set off for a career of adventure on the river. Much growing up is done and even a tragic personal loss is endured, but Sam achieves his goal of becoming a pilot only to realize there is another plan for his life and we all know what that turned out to be. This is the Mark Twain before Tom Sawyer and his history as lecturer, American character and general citizen of the world.
Hall’s narrowing of the focus of Twain’s book is smart, for if the rest were attempted we would be witness to a sprawling mess. What we have now is a healthy long one act with a very good score that suits Twain very well. Andrew Hubacher is a likable Sam Clemens, adopting a boyish demeanor while commanding the stage as the leading man he is. Steven Louis Kane as the teenaged brother Henry fits his role with ease and shows an endearing feeling for his older brother. If there is a downside to this musical, it is in the development of the younger brother, for although he is needed, he has little more to do then pop into the story to complain about being homesick. Jeff Paul is both tough and funny as the pilot, Horace Bixby. The rest of the ensemble is excellent and includes: Dewey Caddell, Mark Coffin, Nathan C. Crocker, Max Demers and Richard Kent Green. When they all get together to sing the rich harmonies of the score, the production is at its most beautiful.
Music Director, Frank Minarik, has assembled a small band of players who plunk banjos and guitars, along with keyboard and violin, to bring the sound of a Mark Twain tale to life. The ambiance is completed by John McDermott’s very attractive and effective set, which includes a simple raised structure that suggests a riverboat and a three sided mural that covers the boxed stage of the tiny theater space––all of it beautifully painted. Despite the limitations of a tight budget, Annette Westerby’s costumes manage to complete the picture and enhance character. Dennis Parichy’s light design leads the eye to focus on what is important and gives the production and overall glow of a nostalgic sepia photograph.
Director Susanna Frazer has pulled together a group of wonderful artists and has staged a humble piece of theater that somehow summons the wide picture of life on the Mississippi river. WorkShop Theater Company should be proud!
For more information go to www.workshoptheater.org.