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.