Like its protagonist, a boy who is destined to change his name to something distinctly nautical and change the face American literature, Life on the Mississippi: A Musical Play is a small production that dares to dream big. Though the theater was the approximate size and dimension of a generously proportioned shoebox, there’s a lot of ambition stuffed into those two performance hours. The space brings some intimacy into the proceedings, forcing the actor to look directly into the audience’s eyes, evoking a smile or pulling out a sad sigh.
The show is full of old-timey, gaw-shucksin’, high-falutin’, book-learnin’, backwater, hillbilly-style purple prose, as colorful as it is descriptive and sure to entertain even the most curmudgeonly among its audience. The words, almost music themselves at times, rolled rather nicely off the tongue of charismatic young lead Andrew Hubacher (Sam) even if it did occasionally trip up a supporting player or two. But I suspect those stumbles were more noticeable just because the rest of the time the cast ably kept up the pace as the tongue-twisting stream of words flowed swiftly by—not unlike the mighty Mississippi.
Though the stage dressing is minimal, coming together the same as it is broken down, by hand and one by one in small parts, the writing does a good job of painting a picture of the river, its twists and turns and the hazards lying underneath its thick brown waters. Like John Banvard’s “three-mile canvas,” another work of art inspired by the Mississippi River, the story stretches out to leave an impression greater than the sum of its parts or the length of its acts.
The music isn’t too complex, but that isn’t for lack of trying. It’s just that complexity isn’t really all that possible when you have just one keyboardist, accompanied as he is by the actors themselves, using hands, feet and other assorted props to round out the percussion.
There’s a recurring song that seems almost like the writer was going for a Stomp feel, with the lyrics pushed out in pseudo-rap form. It didn’t really work for me; perhaps something a little less gold chain and a little more chain gang would have been better suited to the rest of the piece. One song, shared by Hubacher and David Mead (Brown) left something to be desired as the lyrics were delivered like a just barely heightened line reading. That particular delivery didn’t sit well, even if that was done to emphasize Mr. Brown’s utter surliness. But that distaste was pleasingly balanced with another song featuring Mr. Mead’s character and all the delightful variations on his potential (and gruesome) demise.
The best moments came when the cast went a capella. Those musical interludes were stirring and heartfelt, and it didn’t surprise me one bit to see a tear in the corner of Jeff Paul’s (Bixby) eye after one particularly somber number. Going accompanist-free was also a solid decision considering the minimal performance space and the fact that the amplified keyboard occasionally drowned out the sound of the actors’ voices.
There is also one song when a main character sings about his lost love, and a pale girl dressed all in white comes through the curtain and flits around the stage. I don’t think she was all that necessary, and would actually hope that that bit be cut out if there will be future versions. Not that the presence of a woman isn’t welcome, but I found this particular bit of blocking and … well I can’t quite call it dance… distracting, taking me away from the lyrics. I caught myself thinking about how it came off as just a little silly when I should have been considering the song’s content and message.
In all, the show does a good job of taking the audience on an arresting and emotional journey. Sure, I knew how everything would work out before it actually did, but I don’t think I really cared. I enjoyed the characters and the people playing them, I felt moved by their performances and voices, and was pleased to get away from the hustle and bustle of the street to take in the show at leisure. It was a nice ride. Laughter, tears, curtain.
Life on the Mississippi: A Musical Play
Runs through September 22, 2012
The Jewel Box Theater
312 West 36th Street
Fourth Floor East
Between 8th and 9th Avenues