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A trip down ‘Mark Twain’s River of Song’

Dan Wheetman, Tony Marcus, Chic Street Man, Valisia LeKae, and Rondrell McCormick (left to right) in “Mark Twain’s River of Song,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley from October 2 to 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo: Kevin Berne/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley)

“Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company,” declares Mark Twain, played by Dan Hiatt. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s opening night of Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman’s “Mark Twain’s River of Song” was far from hellish; the company was indeed spectacular. In this musical tracing the history and route of the Mississippi, we have a cast that includes Dan Hiatt — the Bay Area theater veteran who can easily be described as the engine for the narrative steam in the folksy, bluesy River of Song — and Grammy and Tony Award nominee Valisia Lekae, who was delightful throughout the wholesome cadence of this west-coast premiere. 

Now, make no mistake, “River of Song” is a modern traveler’s vlog. But Mark Twain, the original #wanderlust who has previously steered our imaginations all over the globe — his favorites Mississippi, Tahoe and the Sea of Galilee — was also a blisteringly funny guy, in an oddly efficient way. His one-liners like, “I’ve been an author for 42 years and an ass for 74,” pompously declared by Hiatt in a leather armchair, got the audience roaring. Sometimes these were so clever, delivered so swiftly, that your brain needed a second to catch up. Sat decked in crimson red socks peeking out from underneath a crisp white suit, with a wispy silver mess of hair, Hiatt simply needed a cigar to complete the picture of the witticism-spewing, venerated literary giant.

At 22, Twain changed his name from Samuel Clemens and adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain, a Mississippi river boating term used to indicate a safe depth of water for a boat (two fathoms).

Famously, the targets of Twain’s amorous intentions were many, and they spill over in the show. “All gamblers and fancy women must sign up with the captain before the boat leaves for New Orleans” — which, if it weren’t for the detailed soliloquy on the “democratic buzzards,” would have been my favorite line of the night. “River of Song” treats us to crackling melodies to accompany a megadramatic voyage down the mighty Mississippi, and we hear stories from lumberjacks to gamblers and farmers to farm wives.

Myler and Wheetman are both diehard Twain lovers. Given TheatreWorks had also dabbled with productions like “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in the past, this collaboration was imminent and, I suspect, effortless.

Traditional numbers such as,

“When I was single, I ate biscuits and pie.
Now that I’m married, it’s cornbread or die,
And I wish I was a single girl again.
Lord, I wish I was a single girl again,”

are interspersed with some charming, original songwriting by Wheetman, from the uplifting “Goin’ Up River” to the utterly hummable “Don’t She Roll.” There are funny and profound tales of common tragedy — for instance, an episode with a father and his little girl with scarlet fever. Both of Twain’s loves percolate through in this universally joyful performance — snippets of time spent training on the river Mississippi and widely acclaimed writing for newspapers around the world. With dozens of songs generating some compulsive floor-thumping, knee-slapping entertainment, “Mark Twain’s River of Song” more than adequately made up for the business school tailgate I had abandoned for the show.

The show closes on Sunday, Oct. 27, so see it soon!

Contact Anupriya Dwivedi at adwivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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