“It’s a good time with lively music,” said Dennis Jones, the theater’s producing director. “When audience members leave I want them to turn to their date and say, ‘Wasn’t that a lot of fun?’”
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 (Henry James was among them) and publish each author’s version. The scheme never flew, and the story languished. It resurfaced once in 1945, then again in 2001. A musical version, by Aaron Posner, co-founder and resident director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company, came shortly after. Posner invited well-known composer James Sugg to write the bluegrass, gospel and gypsy jazz songs.
“Both country music and Twain capture the complex spirit of this nation, from a carefree joy to a dusty wisdom,” Sugg said. “I wanted to find musical styles that would enlighten and enhance the familiar nooks and crannies of a tale filled with, well, murder, mystery and marriage.”
While the play as written calls for a band, director Jones prefers instead to have actors play instruments, integrating the music into the story. Fiddles, guitars and a piano will combine to give the play a lively feel. Jones also designed the set, a townscape of Deerlick. It has a rustic quality, and the stage will feel a bit like a dance hall of the 1800s.
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. Other characters include Sally, mother of Mary Gray, played by MJ Jurgensen, best known to Sonora audiences for playing the role of Vi Petty in SRT’s Buddy, the Buddy Holly Story and Effy Krayneck The Spitfire Grill. 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 plays an instrument, and boisterous melodies abound. There’s “Curse of John Gray,” “Who Woulda Thought It” and “Dark Comes a Risin’,” among others.
“This one is all about fun,” said adaptor Aaron 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.”
Sierra Rep’s 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.”
A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage runs Sept. 26 to Oct. 26 at Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park. 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 209-532-3120 or visist Sierra Rep at www.sierrarep.org.