beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN
a Mark Twain Musical Comedy
Stories: Mark Twain Music, Lyrics and Adaptation: Danny Ashkenasi
Synopsis and musical excerpts
(some songs are presented in two sections)
ACT ONE – JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICA
Journey Through America
A company of modern day “troubadours”, performers and storytellers shares, through story and song, the wit and wisdom of America’s preeminent 19th century troubadour, the peripatetic, funny, sentimental (tall-)tale telling Mark Twain.
The troubadours quote Twain on truth, fiction and America before taking us from Twain’s birthplace in Missouri to the frontier out West, where Twain’s first stories were born.
The Celebrated Jumping frog of Calaveras County
The first tale is about Jim Smiley, who would bet on anything anytime, even change sides on a bet, just as long as he got a bet, and his pet frog Dan’l Webster, whom Smiley trained to jump so high and far that he would win any jumping contest. One day Dan’l loses a contest, not even budging an inch, after being secretly weighed down by 5 pounds of buckshot by Jim Smiley’s betting adversary.
A Genuine Mexican Plug
Twain tells of his unfortunate experience purchasing a horse at auction who bucks so hard and jumps so dangerously he is impossible to ride. A dancing tune for coquettish girls is contrasted with the imagined taunting of the hapless rider by the “Mexican Plug”.
A Genuine Mexican Plug
Sweep Me Off My Feet
Jane Baker claims animals talk and believes Blue Jays have the best vocabulary and grammar in the animal kingdom. She tells the story of a Blue Jay who fills a seemingly bottomless knothole with thousands of acorns before it is discovered, to his fellow Blue Jays’ delight, that he has been filling up a vacant log house through a hole on its roof.
The Californian’s Tale
The Californian of the title is a miner awaiting the return of his beloved wife from a visit to her folks 50 miles away. Eventually we learn that she has actually been dead 19 years, but the miner, gone mad with grief, still expects her return on a certain Saturday every year
Keeper of Your Love
Letters From Greeley
In this fully through-composed selection, the comic misunderstandings caused by the extremely illegible handwriting in a letter of advice from the eminent publisher Horace Greeley are recounted.
Letters from Greeley
Cannibalism in the Cars
A congressman tells how he survived weeks on a train caught in a snowdrift without food. Strict Congressional House rules and protocols were followed in selecting candidates for collective consumption.
In December on a Train
Life on the Mississippi
We return to Missouri to Twain’s birthplace on the Mississippi River and learn of Twain’s boyhood ambition to become a riverboat pilot and his danger fraught apprenticeship on the Steamboat. Twain explains how his love and appreciation of the Mississippi forever changes once he becomes a pilot and learns to read the water’s dangers . Youthful sense of wonder and beauty give way to adult wisdom and peril.
Let the River Flow
Sunset on the River
ACT TWO – THE INNOCENTS ABROAD
Act Two comprises stories and incidents adapted completely from Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad”. The Troubadours leave with Twain and a collection of “Pilgrims” from America on a steamship cruise to Europe and Asia, the first of its kind, in 1869. After enduring seasickness and monotony on the Atlantic Ocean, the travelers land in France.
There they struggle with the native language and fall prey to mercenary guides, who take advantage of tourists in ways that haven’t much changed in the intervening century and a half.
In Italy they are shown a surfeit of paintings, sculpture and architecture, all credited to Michelangelo by an enthusiastic guide the tourists can’t help but tease with idiotic questions. In Rome Twain imagines how a modern impresario or critic would extol the ancient, violent entertainments of the Coliseum. Finally, the doomed denizens of Pompeii are remembered in a haunting evocation.
Pompeii (Remember Me)
Constantinople brings out the most ugly, xenophobic – and comical – tendencies in the travelers. Even the Hagia Sophia is derided for being “dusty”.
Puff a Little Up
In the Holy Land.
Finally Twain and the Pilgrims come on land in Lebanon and make their way through desert and heat to Palestine. They go to Nazareth and Jerusalem, struggling to reconcile their expectations of the Holy Land with the reality they find, expressing both wonderment and disillusion, good will and prejudice. This experience culminates at the Sea of Galilee, where Twain has a nighttime spiritual epiphany. Asking blessing for all of humanity, to remember and smile at all our stories and songs, the troubadours bring this journey to a close
Pilgrims from America
Sea of Galilee
Over the Hills and a Far Far Away (Act Two Finale)
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beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN
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beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN review excerpts:
Company of the 2008 workshop run
Martin Denton · May 17, 2008
Danny Ashkenasi’s beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN brings several stories by Mark Twain to the musical stage. It is at its best when plumbing the substance of Twain’s populist, humanist philosophy; some of the songs that Ashkenasi has written for this show are transcendent, lovely, and moving.
The first act is entitled “Journey Through America” and combines material from Life on the Mississippi with several other Twain tales set in the American West. Several songs about pilots navigating the vastness of the river (“Let the River Flow,” “Mississippi Song,” and “Sunset on the River”) are evocative and exciting. I also enjoyed some of the less familiar material, especially “Blue Jays,” a fanciful number about a methodical bird who thinks he’s filling a hole with nuts but turns out to be doing something entirely different.
The second act takes us to Europe and the Middle East, following the outline of Twain’s travelogue to present his excursions to France, Italy, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Twain’s observations about American tourists on the loose are sharp and funny and in many ways still ring true. The visit to the ruins of Pompeii (in a gorgeous song called “Remember Me“) is enormously moving. And the sequence in Palestine, especially a journey through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is presented with a simplicity and clarity in Ashkenasi’s music (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem” and “Sea of Galilee”) that makes it profound.
Ashkenasi’s compositions are often beautiful, and the arrangements for piano, keyboard, recorder, guitar, oboe, flute, accordion, clarinet, and harmonica—all played variously by the composer and the other six members of the cast—are impressive. His is a musical voice that commands attention.
beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN is quite a charming evening, and it showcases some fine performers in addition to Ashkenasi, including Andrea Pinyan, who sings beautifully, and Alexander Gonzales and Aaron DiPiazza, whose talents as musicians and singers are similarly strong. Ashkenasi is an ingratiating presence on stage as actor and musical director, and his promise as a musical theatre composer is clear.
PIC OF THE WEEK
MARK HIS WORDS
by Adrienne Cea 5/24
Some people are a jack of all trades but a master of none, while others, like the cast of BeTwixt, BeTween and BeTWAIN, appear to have seamlessly mastered a dizzying assortment of trades. Take, for example, the production’s musical director, Danny Ashkenasi. He is also the writer of the play’s book, lyrics and music, and is featured throughout the performance as a piano player and performer.
BeTwixt, BeTween and BeTWAIN also has a strong multi-talented ensemble in Aaron Piazza, Jennifer Eden, Alexander Gonzales, Rachel Green, Andrea Pinyan and Michael Satow. There seems to be no end to the number of instruments this troupe can play: piano, flute, violin, accordion, oboe, clarinet, triangle, guitar, harmonica, maracas, wooden frogs – even forks and knives.
The ensemble never loses their zest or energy, an incredible feat considering the demands placed on their abilities in this packed night of music. The evening begins with some of Mark Twain’s lighter tales: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, A Genuine Mexican Plug, and Blue Jays. Ashkenasi’s musical adaptation of these tales highlights Twain’s humorous eye for life’s small details and people’s unique oddities. He has chosen works with topics that one would never imagine anyone could write a story about, let alone a musical.
The mood turns slightly bleaker in The Californian’s Tale; a mysterious account of a town mad with love over a young woman suspiciously absent from the scene, and Cannibalism in the Cars, a darkly comedic song that Satow delivers with the perfect blend of hilarity and horror. Act one concludes with Life on the Mississippi, a soft, trance-like tribute to the river that has become synonymous with the name Mark Twain.
The second act is a musical adaptation of Twain’s popular travel literature, The Innocents Abroad (or The New Pilgrim’s Progress), chronicling the adventures of tourists as they trek through Europe in search of the Holy Land. Each stop on the tour is told through a series of songs, the most comical being Italy’s Michaelangelo, where the tourists have some fun with their stuffy museum guide asking if everything from Egyptian artifacts to pieces created a million years ago were created by Michaelangelo. Remember Me is another stand-out, addressing the somber moment every bright-eyed tourist encounters when their travels take them to Pompeii.
The length and complexity of each song does give the latter part of the evening a longer, heavier feel, especially given that these are not fluffy commercial jingles, but compact musical stories. But, while some musical interludes may feel weighty and unnecessary, none are uninspired. The actors appear to be having a great deal of fun with their roles. They commit to them without reserve, unafraid to twist their handsome features into ridiculous, ugly expressions.
Rachel Green, in particular, has a funny visual moment where she stands hunched over on a chair, neighing like a lame horse while simultaneously playing a violin, infusing a beautiful classical soundtrack into her own silly scene.
As the backbone of the production, Ashkenasi has an absorbing stage presence. When you have an artist this involved in their work you know you are seeing a fully realized vision that is deeply personal to that artist. There are special moments in beTwixt, beTween, and beTWAIN, outside of the story, where it is fun to watch Ashkenasi close his eyes on the sheet music and play the melody he hears in his head.
Mark Twain may have written the tales, but the collection of tunes belong to Ashkenasi and the six person ensemble of DiPiazza, Eden, Gonzales, Green, Pinyan and Satow, whose combined efforts give this production a fun and energetic life.
Good Show .
I saw a friend’s show last night at the Producer’s Club, and loved it. The show, beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN, with book, music and lyrics are by Danny Ashkenasi, is an original musical based on some Mark Twain short stories and The Innocents Abroad. And, for the first time in a long time (if ever), I got the feeling that this off-off(-off?) Broadway show – even in it’s final weekend (see it now, if you can!) – is the start of something.
It’s charmingly witty, earthy and American – and perhaps surprisingly au courant. But the most amazing and inspiring part was that this ensemble group of actors sang, acted, danced and played their own instruments – ranging from an accordion to flutes to spoons – all in an itty bitty studio theatre with no real lights (just some track lighting above) and not a lot of room.
I literally sat in awe of their stamina and ability to remember lines, notes, lyrics and ceaseless movement (the blocking was never stagnate) after only a few weeks of rehearsal. And their energy never wavered throughout the whole 2 and a half hours . This show has only had a staged/workshop reading once before, but I would not be shocked if they are approached by someone offering to help take the show further.
But even if that doesn’t happen… these actors seemed to be doing their best in a tiny, sweaty space not out of desperation of being discovered, but because this is what they love and it was fun and challenging. (And, damn, if it wasn’t challenging: any girl who can stand on a chair, hunched over while portraying a horse and playing violin as her rump is slapped [as a horse at auction] and her hoof inspected – leaving her with only one leg to stand on – deserves some extra sugar cubes!)
I also have to say, as an audience member, that it was wonderful to see such a true ensemble – each had various strengths and weaknesses that filled in any gaps and supported one another (and therefore, the show) without ever trumping or fading behind any one else.
They should all be very, very proud.