July 17, 2007

Hoosiers gotta sing, gotta dance — something in the water?

Southern Indiana has a tradition of creating quality theater. The departments at Floyd Central and New Albany high schools are nationally recognized, and Clarksville Little Theater and Derby Dinner Playhouse consistently produce top-notch musicals. It seems Hoosiers crave the spotlight.This was evident last Saturday at the world premiere of “Mark Twain on the River,” a new original musical comedy by Bill Corcoran and Rick Neumayer. Corcoran has been Derby Dinner’s musical director for two decades. Neumayer, a fiction writer and former rock singer, taught at Jeffersonville High School for 30 years. “Mark Twain” is the pair’s third joint venture produced at Jeffersonville’s RiverStage, a former floating restaurant/barge.An hour before curtain time, excitement was zinging like summer heat lightning. I staked my claim on the earthen berm along the Ohio. Cast members’ families spread their blankets and chased errant grandkids.To ward off boredom from staring at the river, there was pre-show entertainment — a man and woman lip-synching to Christian rock tunes while interpreting them for the hearing impaired. The crowd bopped their heads and clapped in time. Even agnostics would have found it difficult to not be moved by the songs of praise under the glowing Indiana sunset.Awaiting the performance, I contemplated my own Hoosier roots and how integral locally grown theater can be for the community. (I also thought about what might have been had I married my high school sweetheart, Hugh E. Bir Jr. Would I have been tending bar alongside him in New Albany rather than watching this show?)Finally, the show began. In this musical with a backstage setting, we learn the city of Jeffersonville is bankrupt and that the mayor plans to sell the barge to Mickey Finn, the richest man in town. Now that gambling is legal in Clark County, Finn plans to turn it into a casino. This means choreographer Patty Simmonds and Co. can’t put on their riverboat show.While singing for a miracle, Simmonds is astonished to see Mark Twain appear. “Who the hell are you?” she asks.“Who the hell did you think you were praying to?” Twain retorts.Later in the show, we hear a song called “What Would Mr. Twain Do?” — a clear invocation of the catchphrase, “What would Jesus do?” The lyrics, though, seem to have no connection to the saying. They don’t even make much sense.“I feel a might insane. Toomuch is in my brain. Whothinks they can explain? Whew,what would Mister Twain do?”Twain gives a pep talk and delivers pithy sayings, but the story takes a dark turn with the arrival of Mickey Finn (Miles Haithcock). His long white hair and beard make him look like an aging biker who’d be more at home at, say, Hugh E. Bir’s Café. His voice is menacing during the haunting number “A Pap Has a Job to Do,” filled with minor chords and roaring arpeggios that sound like crashing waves. Surrealism rears its hydra head during the murder scene. In “I’ll Never Tell,” a shrouded Greek chorus of dancers — wearing ghost-face masks from the movie “Scream” — circles Finn and his accountant, Jim. Just then, Twain is hit with a club. When the body is thrown overboard, a realistic splash is heard.As Twain said, “There’s nothing sadder than a young pessimist.” And a fusspot surfaced during intermission. A disgruntled military veteran told anyone who’d listen, “This ain’t Broadway … this ain’t New York. This is Jeffersonville! Mark Twain didn’t have show tunes! This show would be a lot better with bluegrass or country music, right? This ain’t worth stayin’ up for.”That vet may have been a soothsayer. The first act was fast-paced, with quality songs and interesting choreography (although the acting was a bit rough). The second act, involving the murder trial, could benefit from a whole lot of tightening. (Trial scenes are tricky, running the risk of boring the audience with a replay of what they’ve already seen.) On the whole, though, the show is fun and certainly worth the price of admission (free!).And no, the city of Jeffersonville isn’t bankrupt — many more shows are planned for the barge this summer, such as “Footloose!” It is a huge venue with a professional sound and light system and a classical Greek amphitheater feel. The stage has a lot of potential for an imaginative director.If you go, bring mosquito repellant and a lawn chair. And don’t pass up the “best barbecue in Louisville” or the ever-popular funnel cakes. ‘Mark Twain on the River’Starring Chuck Semple, Miles Haithcock, Josh Speckman, Brian Kennedy, Patty Simmonds, Alicia Corcoran-Scott and Mark Miles. Directed by Bill Corcoran and Rick Neumayer. Presented by Spirit Over the River Productions. Continues July 21-22, 8:30 p.m., at Jeffersonville’s RiverStage. Free. For more info, go to www.spiritoverthewaterproductions.com.