Many stories have either a murder, a mystery or a marriage. But to put all three into one, you need that master yarn spinner himself, Mark Twain.
Sierra Repertory Theatre presents the musical (and intrigue-filled) comedy “A Murder, A Mystery and A Marriage” starting today at Fallon House Theatre in Columbia State Historic Park. The piece is based on a short story written by Twain in 1876. The musical will run through Oct. 26.
Set in small-town Deerlick, Mo., the musical uses toe-tapping bluegrass, gospel and gypsy jazz sounds to help tell the tall tale. A narrator named Clem (a stand-in for Samuel Clemens, played by Virginia-based actor and singer Chris Van Cleave) sets the scene for the story.
In the “marriage” part of the play, town ingenue Mary Gray (played by New York actress Maggie Wetzel) is set to wed her sweetheart, but her mean uncle threatens to cut her out of his will if she does. Much of the “mystery” and “murder” components come thanks to the arrival of The Stranger (played by Andrew Crowe), a charismatic man with questionable motives.
To add authenticity to the piece, all of the actors will play their own instruments – from guitars and banjos to fiddles and saws.
“I loved the idea of the performers playing their own instruments in the show. It adds such an interactive quality,” said Wetzel, who acts, sings and plays guitar in her Sierra Rep debut. “The realness of having a performer up on stage creating the music and the story at the same time is so neat. I’ve never done that before. The extent of my guitar playing has not gone beyond my bedroom. It’s a huge challenge and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.”
Also making his debut as the mysterious and smooth-talking Stranger is Crowe, who splits his time between Raleigh, N.C., and New York City. The multi-instrumentalist plays fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, piano, guitar and – yes – that musical saw in the production. The story was adapted into a musical by Aaron Posner, co-founder and resident director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company, in the early 2000s.
Twain’s signature wit comes through in the story, Crowe said. “He is so quick and clever, so much of the script has a wink to the audience,” he said. “The audience is in on the humor without ever losing sight of these characters and the story itself. The story and script are clever and funny and entertaining.”
The Sierra foothills’ connection to Twain has been well documented over the years. The classic humorist spent a winter in 1965 in a cabin about a dozen miles from where his piece is now being presented in Columbia. His time at Jackass Hill near Tuttletown led to the publication of his first popular story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Veteran actor Van Cleave, who lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has his own unique connections to the foothills. When he was in his early 20s, the actor took a cross-country road trip to visit his grandmother, who lived in Sonora. Decades later, he makes his debut here as Clem.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for laughter and to enjoy the story unfold for the audience,” he said. “It’s a show that I think will pretty much guarantee that everyone can have a good time and leave feeling all the better for having come.”
Van Cleave, who has starred in national tours of “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” over the years, will also give a solo concert at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Fallon House Theatre. The show will feature an eclectic array of music from folk to rock and jazz. Tickets for his concert are $15 for adults, $7.50 for children 17 and under.