An inspiring evening of theater can educate, elucidate and enlighten. Or it can entertain with knee-slapping, toe-tapping frivolity. America’s patron saint of snark, Mark Twain (1835-1910), preached that “sacred cows make the best hamburgers.” So it’s probably a safe bet that he would heartily endorse the transformation of his recently unearthed short story into song-and-dance silliness. Mark Twain’s A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage: A Musical Melodrama (2006) is irreverent, implausible and irresistible.
Lost Nation’s current production of the alliteratively titled comedy is a hoot. Kathleen Keenan’s deft direction and Megan Callahan’s crafty choreography fuel frisky storytelling. The ensemble cast engages the audience with eager-beaver earnestness, backed by a boffo bluegrass band whose brisk banjo pickin’ begets plenty of lively clapping along in the crowd.
Twain roughed out A Murder... in 1876, while penning Huckleberry Finn. He intended to ask other leading writers to finish the story — as part of a friendly contest — and have Atlantic Monthly publish the results. But the competition never materialized. The forgotten manuscript languished in archives, unpublished until 2001. Aaron Posner (book and lyrics) and James Sugg (music) turned Twain’s tale into a madcap musical, with a bluegrass score befitting the backwoods setting of Deer Lick, Mi.
Mustachioed narrator Clem, who looks like a certain distinguished 19th-century novelist, shepherds the audience through the action. Hog farmer John Gray and his wife, Sally, have an oh-so-purdy daughter, Mary, who loves shy shopkeeper Hugh Gregory. Grumpy Daddy Gray grudgingly goes along with the courtship, until he finds out that his villainous brother, David, has willed beaucoup bucks to Mary upon his death. There’s just one catch: Mary can marry anyone but Hugh.
Since the farmer hasn’t exactly been living high on the hog, he wants better for his daughter. A Mysterious Stranger, sporting an exotic accent and dashing haberdashery, arrives from a distant land — Kansas! Events conspire to separate Mary from her love so true, and drive her and the Stranger ever closer to the altar. Will the plot twist enough times to ensure a happy ending for the young lovers? One guess.
All the actors embrace the show’s over-the-top esprit. Mark Roberts gives a marvelous performance as tetchy but well-meaning Pa Gray. In “Curse of John Gray,” he laments his character’s lot in a brawny, bluesy baritone: “Even the horses tell me neigh!” Roberts uses broad gestures and bull-in-the-china-shop body language to convey the farmer’s frustration.
Aaron Aubry portrays suitor Hugh with bashful, boyish charm, his shoulders pulled up sheepishly to his ears. Aubry’s magnificent tenor voice has a warm tone; he blends beautifully with his beloved in their happy duet and enchants in the mournful “My Mary,” accompanying himself on the guitar.
As the Mysterious Stranger, Shawn Sturdevant also sings splendidly. He brings sinister flourish to his dastardly character, with a demeanor that channels black-caped cartoon villains. As the manipulative David Gray, Tim Tavcar also captures this exaggerated body language of evil, with pointy gestures and a slithery gait. Chris Colt, on the other hand, makes narrator Clem a graceful Southern gentleman: slow talking, slow walking, chest puffed with pride. His eyes twinkle as he shares wry remarks with his guests, the audience.
Skyler Vallo plays enamored ingenue Mary perfectly. She flashes a toothy smile when happy and pouts disconsolately when all seems lost. Judy Milstein portrays Ma Gray energetically, making her a font of homespun wisdom and cheer. The women’s singing voices don’t quite equal the richness and power of their male counterparts, but this doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the score’s dozen and a half numbers.
The rollicking onstage band plays with gusto. Music director Joel Abbott leads from the keyboard, with John Mowad on fiddle and guitar and Bob Wolk on banjo. The musicians also multitask; they wear costumes, speak occasional lines of dialogue and sometimes sing. They back the cast through a diverse range of delightfully executed dance numbers, which incorporate tap, ballet, tango, clogging and square dancing.
As usual, LNT’s polished technical elements enhance the storytelling. Costumer Cora Fauser makes Mary a cotton-candy confection of pink flounces and ruffles. Meanwhile, she defines hog farmer Gray’s fancy duds as a black tux jacket trimmed with red sequins, worn atop his denim overalls. Kevin M. Kelly’s sets feature clever details, such as a sign over the porch that flips between “Gregory’s General Store” and “Deer Lick.” Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s flickering lighting effect comically emphasizes moments of high tension by recreating the look of silent-movie melodrama.
It’s a rousing evening, made all the more amazing by something most of the audience didn’t know on opening night. Sturdevant hurt his leg quite badly during the previous night’s preview performance. Keenan and the cast had to reblock and rechoreograph much of the show just hours before the premiere. The villain’s cane, rolling bench and stool summoned at a finger’s snap? All inventions of necessity, wonderfully incorporated as the injured actor performed his role with aplomb. That truism of the theater — “The show must go on!”— was never more inspiring.
Mark Twain’s A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage: A Musical Melodrama, directed by Kathleen Keenan, produced by Lost Nation Theater. City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier. July 23 to August 2, Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, August 2, at 2 p.m. $20-25.