BeTwixt BeTween and BeTWAIN Review
Martin Denton May 17th, 2008

The Cast In Rehearsals
Photo Credit:Edward Elder

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.

Rehearsing On Stage
Photo Credit:Edward Elder

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.

BeTwixt, BeTween and BeTWAIN
Photo Credit:Edward Elder

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. review

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.