Life on the Mississippi
Other than a title or two that has perpetually kept his name on a list of banned books, Mark Twain has more or less solidified a reputation as an act safe for a general audience, families mostly. If you think this is an oversimplified, unfair and inaccurate assessment, ask yourself if you’d be more likely to take a kid or a date to a musical based on one of his books. Somehow "Ol’ n-word " Clemens is the guy we turn to for moral guidance and life lessons, but we seek out singing nuns and Oprah to help us make out.
Perhaps this is Disney’s fault. Or perhaps that expensive homestead in Hartford convinced Twain that he ought not too badly offend anybody who could read and pay for the privilege of proving it.
He also wore a number of hats in his storied life, including Confederate soldier, Presidential savior and, most famously, riverboat pilot. It’s this last occupation that the Workshop Theater Company spotlights in "Life on the Mississippi," an impressively faithful adaptation of the novel.
Many on the creative team also wear multiple hats themselves, which makes the fact that they pulled it off so well even more remarkable. But despite the evident talent, the production as a whole seems a better fit for a field trip than maybe it’s supposed to be.
This is not meant to degrade the results necessarily. Musical versions of "Charlotte’s Web" and "Peter Pan," for instance, have supplanted their respective sources in the minds of generations. But endearing as they are, they never quite excavated any angles in the originals. It’s the difference between Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now," both, ironically, also set on riverboats.
Where’s the adjustment here? What’s the new context an "adaptation" require? There doesn’t seem to be one. You never lose the impression that you’re in a very sanitized world. Even that Smurfs movie that came out last year garnered a PG rating.
That said, most of what’s on deck in "Life on the Mississippi" is really very well done, and deserves the admiration of anyone who respects the inventive craftsman. No one deserves that respect more than director Susanna Frazer, who not only helms the production, but also designed the set.
The latter is almost a character itself, a freshwater poop deck of interchangeable parts ideally suited to Frazer’s equally fluid staging. She keeps the action brisk and buoyant, and sculpts every distinct scene into its own narrative in miniature. Her work is a master lesson in how to direct a play, regardless of resources.
As playwright, composer and lyricist, Philip Hall arguably bears more responsibility for what’s on paper than even Twain himself. His script has ensured you need not know the book to enjoy the story as much as anyone who has read it. It resorts to a first person, fourth wall-breaking account to hold all the pieces together. But then again, so does Twain. Still, the "tell me" world of the novel is a bit different than the "show me" world of the stage, and Twain after all was a native of the ’show me’ state.
Hall’s lyrics are never mundane and often sophisticated. But he can also dispense with them to great effect, as in the beautifully haunting melody of "The Leadsmen’s Song," which consists of only eight words. This particular number is powerfully performed by Brance Cornelius and Tyrone Davis, Jr. Their exquisite voices blend so well together you wish they had not been billed as mere crewmen.
Any song performed by the full company stands out. They are committed performers with palpable chemistry and first rate chops. When they sink their teeth into the chorus of "Great Big Boat" it’s rather stirring, and their percussive self-accompaniment in the otherwise a capella stab at hayseed hip-hop, "Snatch It," is delightful. The song itself, unfortunately, is a little too reminiscent of a candy commercial, and a character’s request for a capstan bar may prompt you to break off a piece of a Kit Kat. A similar malady drags down "Mississippi Sunset," a gorgeous number, but one that sounds commissioned by a tourist board.
Pretty much every other song comes and goes without lingering, or smacks of an animated version of something. An exception is one of the show’s few solos, "I Remember," a superb little soliloquy movingly performed by the fantastic Jeff Paul. But in my one quibble with director Frazer, the song is distracted by a ghostly blonde dancing over it.
With only 10 songs (and three reprises), the show feels longer than it should for 90 minutes. After about an hour you’re ready to drop anchor and disembark. But it’s a tidy, inoffensive and sometimes outright beguiling little musical.
It’s much better than sitting through an English class.
"Life on the Mississippi," runs through September 22 at the Jewel Box Theater, 312 West 36th Street (4th floor) in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 212-695-4173 or visit www.workshoptheater.org.