By Mary Boyle
Author of what are considered two of the greatest American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Samuel Langhorne Clemens — better known as Mark Twain — was inspired by his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri and his time spent as a steamboat pilot on the great Mississippi River. In fact, it was this position that gave him his pen name, as "mark twain" was the cry given when the river measured 12 feet deep, meaning it was safe for the riverboat to travel. Twain's romantic tales of America's great river are the inspiration for the World Premiere production of Mark Twain's River of Song at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret.
Written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, the same duo who wrote Low Down Dirty Blues and Back Home Again, which graced the Stackner stage several seasons back, River boasts a talented ensemble of three performers who each can play multiple instruments, sing, and act. David M. Lutken, who also appeared in Back Home Again, is Mark Twain, and does the majority of the narration and singing, while also playing guitar, harmonica, banjo, mandolin and an occasional bit of dancing. Spiff Wiegand plays over 20 instruments (but just eight for this production), and spends some time as Huck Finn during the performance. Harvy Blanks is Old Jim and, though he plays the least amount of instruments (washboard and harmonica) during the show, his voice is essential for such traditional songs as "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Stagger Lee," and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
What's interesting about this production is that Myler and Wheetman wrote nearly half of the songs performed in the same style as many of the traditional songs in the lineup, as opposed to using all familiar material, which I don't think the audience was expecting. The story line is not as clear and tidy as their other shows; nonetheless, Lutken's voice is reminiscent of Johnny Cash, the performers are talented, and the music moves along at a fast pace, interspersed with Twain's quips and wisdom and a little bit of Huck Finn — an enjoyable accompaniment to one of the many delicious drinks and desserts you can order at the Stackner while you take in the performance.
Mark Twain's River of Song runs through March 17th at the Stackner Cabaret, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.