Reviewed by Judy Richter
One of the enduring mysteries of the Grand Canyon concerns young newlyweds, Bessie and Glen Hyde, who tried to navigate down the Colorado River in a homemade wooden raft in 1928. They made it about halfway, then disappeared without a trace. Although several theories have surfaced, none has been proven. Composer Chuck Larkin and author-lyricist Cheryl Coons probe this mystery in "River's End,'' a world premiere presented by Marin Theatre Company and directed by its artistic director, Lee Sankowich. Actually, it's billed as a musical play based on a true story.
The show begins in the present with two veteran river guides, Georgie (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) and Kent (J.D. Nelson), telling their versions of the Hyde mystery. Each version is enacted by a different pair of actors. Bessie One (Molly Bell) is eager to undertake the trip because she'll be the first woman ever to raft down the Colorado. She thinks she and her husband, Glen One (John Patrick Moore), can turn their experience into a vaudeville act. Glen One, a farmer, is more cautious and wants nothing to do with the stage. On the other hand, Bessie Two (Dani Marcus) is decidedly apprehensive about the trip, while Glen Two (Travis Poelle) is an adventuresome sort who can hardly wait to get started.
Known facts about the trip are interwoven with each couple's perception of the events and each individual's and couple's resultant changes. Cone and Nelson play all of the other people they meet along the way. Giulio Perrone's set features high canyon walls in back and sections of the boat in front. The three-person orchestra, led by composer Larkin on piano, sits on a platform off to the left behind tall dry grasses. Norm Kern's sound design, with its moving water, birds and insects, helps to establish the setting, along with Kurt Landisman's lighting and Cassandra Carpenter's costumes.
Larkin's music, starting with the dramatic "Only the River Knows," is melodic, but the program -- fat with ads -- fails to provide a list of songs, a shortcoming. The acting, singing and staging are outstanding throughout. It's especially interesting to see how skillfully Cone and Nelson transform themselves from one character to another.
During the course of its development, "River's End" received ASCAP's first Harold Arlen Award for Musical Theatre. After its premiere run with MTC, it will be presented at the National Alliance of Music Theatre's Festival in New York in September.