No wonder they named a comedy award after Mark Twain. The legendary humorist has been dead for almost 100 years but he’s still cranking them out. Well, sort of. The recent discovery of an unpublished short story by Twain has spawned a delightful little musical that wraps the author’s homespun lunacy around an infectious bluegrass score and a heapin’ dose of cornpone.
This zany bit of Americana is as unpretentious as they come. Its title, “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage,” is the only thing cumbersome about Twain’s lampoon of 19th-century melodramas and frontier innocence. It’s a fast moving tale involving the denizens of fictitious Deer Lick, Mo., presumably somewhere near Hannibal.
Twain wrote the story in 1876 as part of a proposed competition among prominent writers. But the idea never flew, and after Twain’s death in 1910 the manuscript languished in private collections. It resurfaced in the late 1990s and was finally published in 2001.
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It caught the eye of Aaron Posner, co-founder and resident director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company, as a worthy stage vehicle. Posner invited composer and previous collaborator James Sugg to write the music, while he penned the book and lyrics. Co-produced by Round House Theater and the Delaware Theater Company, it debuted at the Delaware facility in April before transferring to the Round House’s Bethesda location.
Upshot is an unabashedly tawdry tale spun by glib guitar-toting narrator (a folksy Dan Manning as a middle-aged Samuel Clemens. Other ingredients include one innocent maiden (an arresting Erin Weaver), her protective parents (Anthony Lawton and Sherri L. Edelen), a righteous boyfriend (Ben Dibble), a wealthy but repulsive relative (Thomas Adrian Simpson) and, of course, one disreputable stranger eager to commit the occasional dastardly deed (an oh-so-evil Scott Greer).
With a corny joke around every corner, and an occasional apology for the low-brow mayhem, Twain’s simple life surely inspires one to song. Fortunately, Suggs has written an inviting collection of foot-stomping melodies that would be at home at the Grand Ole Opry. They include the lively “Curse of John Gray,” a rollicking “Who Woulda Thought It” and the infectious “Dark Comes a Risin’.”
The material is expertly showcased by a uniformly fine cast and four-person band. Weaver is strong in the tender “I Miss Hugh,” while Dribble’s sturdy tenor stands out in “My Mary.”
It’s all dressed up in Tony Cisek’s multifunctional country set, Kate Turner-Walker’s frontier costumes and Karma Camp’s heel stomping choreography. And while the hokey innocence surely won’t please everyone, there is a large and waiting audience for this musical version of Twain’s raucous tale.