Musical numbers: “We’re Goin’ Fishin’,” “A Pilot on the Mississippi,” “Welcome to Paris,” “The Can Can,” “Roughing It,” “The Skating Madrigal,” “I Know There’s a Place,” “The House on the Hill,” “The Camelot Rag,” “The Russian Dance,” “When Out on the River,” “Let’s Give the Folks a Taste of Royalty,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Men of Oxford,” “Homeward Bound.”
Jane Iredale and William Perry’s “Mark Twain — The Musical!” has arrived at the renovated Hartford State Armory after nine summers in Elmira, N.Y. “Twain” has a lot going for it (notably, 21 Russian dancers from the Bolshoi Theater) and a lot going against it (the cavernous venue, echoic acoustics that muddle much of the dialogue and lyrics, and a smattering of hokum). Whether it will attract audiences for its scheduled 10-summer stand remains to be seen.
With the audience on three sides of the stage, the production is dominated on the fourth by a reproduction of Twain’s Hartford home. After a seemingly lost usher turns out to be part of the show, an aged Twain (William Perley) enters in a horse-drawn carriage, his life’s tale beginning in once-over-lightly chronological order. Interspersed are scenes from “Tom Sawyer,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It,” “Huckleberry Finn” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
The cast of 65, many of them children, races exhaustingly around the vast stage. Only one actor manages to project a dimensional character: Melissa King as the woman Twain marries. Her death gives rise to the score’s most memorable moment, a lustrous performance by Janelle Robinson-Moses of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” It’s difficult to judge the overall quality of the singing because of the sound, but Robinson-Moses has the best of it.
The derivative show includes a scene in which a male ensemble singing of being without women is joined by a wagon-load of scantily clad women, a number apparently borrowed from “Paint Your Wagon.” At least the dancing here is vigorous and polished, as it is throughout. A Russian dance (Twain visits Russia on a lecture tour) is led by sinuously athletic Marina Kvitka. She and her countrymen bring much-needed professionalism to the show.
Although the orchestra conducted by Donald Sosin is on tape, the dialogue and singing is live and amplified by body mikes. The entire production is handicapped by clangorous sound.
The storybook set (the Twain house revolves to reveal a towering Mississippi riverboat) and the many costumes are attractive in a prettified way. Given the built-in logistical problems, director Clare Reidy and choreographer Danny Herman have marshaled their large forces with skill.
“Mark Twain — The Musical!” is a special breed of theatrical animal. Its run in Hartford will be watched with interest, especially by the city itself and the state of Connecticut, both of which view it as a big, continuing source of tourist dollars.