beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN
nytheatre.com review by 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, especially in its second act (which is based on The Innocents Abroad) 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. The Life on the Mississippi section, which closes the act, is the strongest; 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; but the most effective parts of Act Two come when the material turns more introspective. 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.
I do have a few reservations about beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN: the purely humorous and satirical sections feel like more of a stretch for Ashkenasi, who seems most at home when the subjects are spiritual or transcendental. And the show's staging, by Tracy Bersley, feels overly busy to me: I think simplicity all around will serve this material best, in a story theatre mode with the actor/musicians singing, playing, and enacting the tales with as little extraneous detail as possible. I was greatly impressed by the seamless way that Ashkenasi moved the performers from instrument to instrument without ever calling attention to the process; but Bersley has the cast shifting the few chairs and props around frequently and distractingly.
Some editing might be in order as well. There's a lot of material here, including several numbers in both acts that feel redundant (each act really needs only one opening and one closing, but it feels like there are several of each).
But despite these quibbles, 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.