If you can get past their oppressively overquaffed opening-night parties, Florida Stage really is an interesting experiment. It is a huge company with expensive facilities and, if its location in the middle of Manalapan means anything, an almost disturbingly wealthy subscription base. Yet the theater handles exclusively new or very nearly new work, and the folks in charge are more than willing to get quirky. Their last show featured Terry Hardcastle as Stephen Hawking, who appeared to a young gothic girl as a sort of spirit guide whenever she got high. The elderly Manalapanese ate it up. Whoodathunkit?
If it's a given that there are more plays being written at any one time than will ever see the light of day, it's also a given that precious few of them will meet the specific needs of a particular company at a particular moment. And so, Florida Stage's M.O. isn't just an interesting experiment; it is a brave and admirable one.
Sometimes, though, it's sheer lunacy. Such is the case with A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage, a musical based on a Mark Twain story with a queer pedigree. So queer is that pedigree, in fact, that I half-expected (and rather hoped) that the play would be the story of the story rather than its adaptation. Twain initially wrote the piece in 1876 as part of an intended anthology in which 12 authors would each pen a story with the same rough plot (involving murder, mystery, and marriage). The other writers flaked or else never agreed to the project, and the anthology went unwritten. Lacking a home, Twain's story disappeared until 1945, when Lew D. Feldman acquired the original manuscript and put out a 16-copy limited edition, just to see if owning the manuscript gave him the right to publish. The Supreme Court decided it didn't. The story wasn't published again until the ownership rights were settled in 2001, and then both The Atlantic Monthly and W.W. Norton had a whack. Now, less than a decade after the first wide release of A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage, it has already been corrupted by jingle-happy theater people, and it's now hee-hawing awkwardly across the selfsame stage over which Stephen Hawking happily rolled not six weeks ago.
A Murder, a Mystery music by James Sugg. With Eric Scott Anthony, Richard Henzel, Dan Leonard, Bruce Linser, David M. Luken, Kiera O'Neil, Lourelene Snedeker, Tom Kenaston, Gary Mackey, and Rupert Ziawinski. Presented through January 13 at Florida Stage, Plaza del Mar Shopping Center, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Call 800-514-3837, or visit www.floridastage.com.
A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage turns out to be the story itself rather than the stories' story, and try as I might, I can't imagine what Twain would make of it. Maybe he'd dig its lack of pretension — before the lights go down or the doors close, the actors are already onstage, tuning up their instruments, jawing with the audience, excited to get in some good, clean country fun. But on a shrewd day, Twain may have sensed that the seeming lack of pretension cloaked an even deeper pretense: that this informality is something other than realist camp. Maybe I'm a grouch, but it bugged me. At least with an honest piece of cheese like Backwards in High Heels, you know from the get-go that you're being pandered, talked down, and condescended to. Honest cheese politely asks you to suspend your disbelief: A Murder, a Mystery & a Marriage wants you to suspend it without pay and maybe fire it altogether.
And it's a musical. Why not? Again, maybe I'm a boilsnort, but if somebody's going to show me a musical adaptation of a short story by one of American literature's greats, I'd like the show to give me some inkling of why the adaptation was done in the first place. Why a musical? Why not a graphic novel? A diorama? A cello suite? Modern dance? Finger puppets?
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Good question, that. Even if you love the show, you probably won't figure it out. Even after days of careful mulling, the best you're liable to come up with is this: Mark Twain's short story was cute, music can be cute, and if you add this cute story to increasingly cute music, you'll get some kind of multimegaton Cuteness Neutron Bomb that will vaporize an audience's critical faculties while leaving their bodies fully intact so they can give you a great, big standing O while drooling on their sweaters (and my, how they applaud: M3 gets the biggest standing O I've seen in Palm Beach County this year).
But upon returning to sanity some days later, you may find yourself wondering: Why call this a Twain story at all? Because it's got an archetypically Twainian sort of setting? Because it uses some of Twain's language? Please, God, say it's not because it contains murder, mystery, and marriage. A few months ago, I read Brett Easton Ellis' Lunar Park, and it too contained murder, mystery, and marriage. Ellis' book was both funnier and more compelling than this (though I admit it was nowhere near as cute).
M3 is set in a town called Deerlick, where young Mary Gray (Kiera O'Neil) is in love with Hugh Gregory (Eric Scott Anthony). They want to get hitched. And though Mary's Pa has his reservations, Ma's all for it, and you figure things should go smoothly. They don't. Very soon, Mary discovers she is to be the sole beneficiary of her rich uncle's will, provided she doesn't marry Gregory, and a faux Frenchman named Stranger shows up to court the grief-stricken girl. The Stranger introduces himself as "Count Fountainbleau" in an accent so heavy, it's like he's secreted a crepe under his tongue, and we, the audience, are meant to laugh at this. God help us, we do.
M3 is a welterweight tale to begin with and probably doesn't need the increased sillification that is doomed to come with any musical adaptation of a nonmusical piece. Still, I suspect it's the music that earned all those standing O's. A prairie drag queen on piano, a cute (cute!) little pickup band on fiddle and bass, two guitar players among the cast's principals, and a cast full of singers ranging from good (Dan Leonard) to glorious (O'Neil) wrap their chops around some beautiful, down-homey numbers by James Sugg that really do suggest a concert rather than a musical (and hearing O'Neil's Broadway-belter voice pulling high-lonesome harmonies is a pleasure music people shouldn't miss, though it won't justify the tix for theater folks). The last of those numbers, "God's World," is a lovely benediction that almost makes you forgive the show all its useless dumbness. And then, through the happy haze brought on by good (blue)grass, you remember distantly that theater is supposed to teach you something or move you or surprise you, and you start feeling cheated all over again. And then you think about Twain, who said "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand" and remember all that chuckling and figure it's all good. And then you think, shit, would Twain have laughed at this? Or approve of a song called "God's World"? And then you figure that Twain also said "The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all," and you think about those standing O's, and at some point, you'll probably make up your own damned mind.