Mark Twain never disappoints.
Sierra Reportory Theater's stage production of a musical version of "A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage" doesn't either. The musical is a must see this month in the historic Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park outside of Sonora.
The show is an absolute blast and ends with the audience grinning, stomping feet to the beat and clapping hands. It was so well-enjoyed on opening night Friday that the fun-loving crew received a standing ovation.
A perfect blend of small-town antics, homespun humor and foot-stompin' fiddle playing make SRT's new production an absolute fun two hours. Set in Deerlick, Mo., the musical fits Columbia's historic feeling and should delight audiences seeking a taste of the wit of legendary humorist Mark Twain.
Dennis Jones, SRT's producing director, has succeeded in getting audiences to "turn to their date and say, ‘Wasn't that a lot of fun?'"
Indeed it was.
Twain wrote the original short story for the Atlantic Monthly in 1876 as part of a proposed competition among 12 prominent writers. The idea was to give a skeleton plot involving a mysterious stranger and a murder to the authors and publish each author's version. Twain's scheme never flew, and the story languished before it resurfaced in 1945 and then again in 2001. Aaron Posner, director of Philadelphia's Arden Theater Company, created a musical version. Posner invited well-known composer James Sugg to write the bluegrass, gospel and gypsy jazz songs.
While the play as written calls for a band, Jones preferred to have actors play instruments, integrating the music into the story. Fiddles, guitars and a piano combine to give the play a lively feel.
The lyrics to songs are clever and the script allows the characters from time to time to seek laughs by referring to the audience which actors mostly ignore in most productions.
The story is a tall tale spun by a narrator, Clem, presumably named for Samuel Clemens. Played by actor and singer/songwriter Chris Van Cleave, Clem is a folksy, guitar-playing presence.
Sally, mother of Mary Gray, played by M.J. Jurgensen, earns her share of laughs.
The town beauty, Mary is set to marry her true love, Hugh Gregory, but her evil uncle (played by SRT favorite Ty Smith), David Gray, threatens to drop Mary from his will if she does. There's a murder, of course, and a dastardly stranger, new to town. Each performer seems to have a beautiful singing voice and each plays an instrument, and boisterous melodies abound. There's "Curse of John Gray," "Who Woulda Thought It" and "Dark Comes a Risin'," among others.
Jesse Corbin has a wonderful voice as he croons from behind bars in a sad and touching scene when the two lovers are separated by an unjust charge of murder against him.
Andrew Crowe, a New York City actor, nails the nastiness of our cunning villain and Jody Alan Lee of Arizona is superb in his humorous role of a suspicious and grumpy father who is out to protect his daughter until everything changes when promises of an inheritance enters the picture.
"This one is all about fun," said Posner. "This play is designed to be a pure delight. With music! The story has loving irreverence for Twain's characters and a sense of sheer exuberance. This Twain is meant to be enjoyed by all. It's a chance to revel in all things homespun, handcrafted and American."
The production also has a local tie to give it extra life. Mark Twain spent the winter of 1865 holed up in a cabin at Jackass Hill, just miles from Columbia. It was there, the legend goes, that a miner first told him a story that inspired the first of his many masterpieces - The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
"We're always looking to try to put pieces into the Fallon House that seem to fit with the ambiance of the theater," Jones said. "In this case, the story and the theater will work together to create a rich experience."
The show is definitely worth the drive to the Mother Lode. A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage opened Friday night and runs until Oct. 26. Thursday performance times vary. Friday performances begin at 7 p.m., Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. General admission ranges from $26 to $32. The show is recommended for ages 12 and up.
For more information or reservations, call Sierra Rep's box office at 532-3120 or visist Sierra Rep at www.sierrarep.org.