Mark Twain's Blues
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 18, 2008
It's one thing to put Huckleberry Finn into his own musical, as Roger Miller successfully did with Big River a few decades back. It's quite another to turn Mark Twain himself into a song-and-dance man, and your comfort level with that conceit is going to mightily affect how you feel about Mark Twain's Blues, a new "play with songs" by Walt Stepp. A premise of this show is that Twain, delivering one of his famous lectures at the age of 65, sings as well as speaks them; in fact, for a few moments he shares the stage with a local Southern committeewoman, with whom he performs a duet.
The more provocative idea at the heart of Mark Twain's Blues, though, is that Twain is, some 15 years after the fact, still somehow wracked with guilt about the ending he gave his most popular novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So much so that in the middle of this particular lecture, Huck and his friend the runaway slave Jim appear to Twain, first to harangue him about how he "sold out" to give their book a conclusion that would please the masses and make money; and later to help him "rewrite" the ending to their satisfaction.
Stepp is treading on very dangerous ground here, reconstructing a beloved and rightfully classic work of literature. His central argument seems to be that Twain should have given Huck and Jim the good sense to find their way back to the Ohio River (and Jim's freedom). They complain that having Tom Sawyer function as a deus ex machina to give the book a happy ending is dishonest. But Stepp throws in his own twist that feels at least as problematic in his quest to make Huck and Jim more grown up. In the end, I remained unconvinced that Twain's novel required any tampering with; don't attempts like this to "fix" novels rooted in the sensibility of their own time almost always diminish rather than celebrate the art?
Stepp has filled his show with lots of songs and the occasional dance routine (choreography, often haltingly executed by the cast, is by James Beaudry). Many of these musicalize sections in the book, and unfortunately these fail to stand up to Miller's work in Big River when they overlap (for example, a song called "I'll be Gone to Freedom" suffers badly in comparison to "Muddy Water" or "River in the Rain").
The cast is game but poorly served by the material, and unfortunately Tom Herman's direction doesn't seem to provide them with much help. In the title role, Bill Tatum often seems to be channeling that definitive Twain portrayer, Hal Holbrook. Lance Olds is likable as Huck (Stepp has made this fictional character about 30 in this play, which is not how old Huck would be if he were alive in 1900—well into his 60s, by my reckoning); but he didn't always seem comfortable with his lines at the performance reviewed. Barry Phillips sings well as Jim, but delivers many of his speeches in a slave accent so thick as to be incomprehensible. Bonne Kramer rounds out the ensemble as all of the women in the story.
Mark Twain's Blues feels well-intentioned to me, but its author hasn't supplied a sufficient reason for the radical reconfiguring he suggests here. Neither, alas, has he fashioned a worthy drama to hold it.