Life on the Mississippi | Northern Sky Theater

Life on the Mississippi at Northern Sky Theater

Lyrics & Book by Douglas M. Parker
Music by Denver Casado

Young Samuel Clemens leaves home in Hannibal to be a cub pilot on a Mississippi steamboat in 1857 and unexpectedly finds himself learning about life…and death…and love…and writing.  All while navigating his way from boy to man and from Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain.

“When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river.”
Mark Twain in his memoir, Life on the Mississippi

2010 marked the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death.




By Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Posted: July 23, 2010


'Life on the Mississippi' part of strong season at Door County's American Folklore Theatre


Fish Creek — Mark Twain borrowed more from and gave more to American folklore than any of our canonical writers.


It's therefore no surprise to see Door County's American Folklore Theatre celebrate its 20th birthday - and commemorate the 100th anniversary of Twain's death - by giving birth to "Life on the Mississippi," an original musical commemorating the two-year period when a young Samuel Clemens became a steamboat pilot on Old Man River.


Drawing heavily on Twain's own memoirs, Douglas M. Parker (book and lyrics) and Denver Casado (music) focus on Sam's apprenticeship under the salty Captain Bixby, as well as Sam's close relationship with his younger brother Henry.


Twain would remember these pivotal years as the time when he grew up, and there is no question that as the musical begins, Sam Clemens has a lot to learn about a world where people - like the river - have much more going on than one can see on the surface.


"Every day," Bixby tells him, "the river tells a story," and as the action unfolds, Sam learns to read the stories because he learns to listen, morphing from a brash and cocksure youngster into a keen observer and budding writer.


This makes Sam a vintage straight man - one who becomes a writer by stepping back and allowing the quirky characters around him to do the talking. As Sam, Chase Stoeger clearly understands his role, and he generously allows himself to be upstaged by the motley crew he encounters.


Playing multiple characters, Lee Becker and Mark Moede bring us onto familiar AFT ground, serving up large slices of cornpone humor while spinning the sort of tall tales that would make Twain famous.


Chad Luberger's irrepressibly enthusiastic Henry reminds us of the boy Sam once was, while Doug Mancheski's Captain Bixby foreshadows the cantankerous but also warm-hearted man Sam would one day become.


Loved by both of the Clemens brothers, Molly Rhode's Adele gives us two beautiful ballads showcasing her first-class pipes.


In "Looking," Adele makes clear that on the river and in life, what counts is the journey rather than the destination.


In "He's Still Here," Adele insists that the only way we can cheat death is through the stories we tell, helping us remember those who are gone while keeping ourselves alive.


It is a lesson Sam Clemens never forgot, ensuring that he and his stories would live forever - not only in Twain's writings, but in thoughtful, well-crafted musicals such as this one.


Bone Dance - Dancing in the dark


There's nothing like a ghost story to drive home the vital importance of narrative in cheating death, and there's nothing like AFT's outdoor stage, in the depths of woodsy Peninsula State Park, to evoke how closely death once lurked, just beyond the shadows of our ancestors' campfires.


AFT's wildly popular "Bone Dance" has been thumbing its nose at the grim reaper since 1995 by mixing haunted tales from around the world with gallows humor - including a perfectly harmonized madrigal on corpse-fattened worms and groaners that could make the dead turn in their graves (Sample: "Hear about the ghost who got lost? He was mist").


In two of the stories, including the hilariously creepy "The Man Who Married a Finger," the living marry the dead. Many of the stories feature hunger and cold - a reminder of a time when both were common killers, and when animal cunning could make the difference between survival and starvation.


One of the best of these is "Flying Head," in which an ever larger and more voracious monster comes calling for a young woman's baby. A series of increasingly large monster heads are among the many ingenious puppets and masks designed by Ralph Lee, all of which add immeasurably to the stories in which they appear.


Lee's creations hark back to older storytelling traditions, as does the cast's heavy reliance on pantomime, accompanied by exquisitely timed sound effects.


There's even room here for some Louis Armstrong, with a rendition of "Skeletons in the Closet" that features smartly tap-dancing skeletons, as well as some scat singing from Mancheski in "Wait Till Emmet Comes," one of many scenes that he steals while displaying his full range of comic gifts and helping us laugh in - and at - the surrounding darkness.


Cheeseheads rule the world


In the current recession, our primal fears of yore have been replaced by a visceral fear of losing our jobs, while the stories we tell involve an insistence that we really do still matter in a seemingly indifferent world.


Cue the theme music for "Cheeseheads, the Musical," which is back after last summer's auspicious debut. It rounds out AFT's three-play summer season.


Set in late 2008, "Cheeseheads" features the mythical Schnaybel Famous Cheese Co., a family-run operation from Sheboygan that has been sold to Conglomerated Cheese after the death of the Schnaybel patriarch.


With the arrival of Melanie (Rhode), a hotshot executive from Conglomerated sent in to raise productivity, the salad days seem gone forever, as the idiosyncrasies of the Schnaybel workforce yield to the ruthless efficiencies of a Conglomerated assembly line.


But not so fast. As AFT itself repeatedly reminds us, Wisconsin and its unique heritage have a way of overcoming all efforts to streamline their differences.


Normalize the quirky Doc Muenster (Doc Heide), with his homegrown cheese creations? Or the silent handyman Thursday (Becker), whose facial expressions say more than the thousand words he refuses to speak?


You might as well deny the obvious love of the proverbial girl next door (a charming Pamela Niespodziani) for Bobby (a delightfully clueless Stoeger) - or deny a born ham like Mancheski (playing the plant manager) a chance to bask in the limelight.


This is Wisconsin, gosh darn it, and its citizens won't give up their traditions without a fight - particularly when we're helped along by the likes of Paul Libman's catchy tunes and Dave Hudson's witty lyrics, which range from poignant to downright rousing.


No wonder that Melanie eventually waves the white flag and goes native. By play's end, even the Flatlanders sitting around me were on their feet and cheering this improbable, wonderful and utterly cheesy.

Door County Advocate
Marty Lash – Door County Advocate, June 2010


Stoeger, cast lead wonderful trip down the ‘Mississippi’


FISH CREEK — In recent years, American Folklore Theatre has been very ambitious. Last year, the company unveiled two new shows, “Cheeseheads, The Musical” and “Guys & Does”. Previously, it also took on new shows such as “A Cabin With a View” and “Sunsets and S’Mores.”


Just when you think it has done it all, the company has come up with one of its best new shows. “ Life on the Mississippi” is grand, ambitious entertainment that dazzles with its brilliant acting and engaging story.


The musical, penned by Douglas Parker and Denver Casado, is based on American humorist/author Mark Twain’s (aka Samuel Clemens) early days. Samuel is learning to be a steamboat captain and brings along with him Henry, his wide-eyed, dutiful brother who also seeks a life on the river. Samuel calls Henry his “little brother” and is very protective of him.


Along the way, Samuel has to deal with Mr. Brown, a very difficult boat captain. Brown is an angry, worn-out shell of a man who enjoys making their lives miserable. They also encounter the more sympathetic Horace Bixby, who at least treats them with respect.


Of course, there is a girl who enters their lives. They both vie for her affections, but she is ultimately won over by Henry. At first, Samuel seems disappointed Adele chooses Henry, but he comes to accept her choice. Adele’s relationship with Samuel changes later in the musical when tragedy falls upon Henry.


What struck me about this play is that it is a bit more serious than most AFT fare. We are used to its goofy, Northwoods antics and fun, light romps.


This musical, however, takes us into thought-provoking terrain. Its themes deal with the unimaginable wonder, discovery and peril that this life holds. Life on a steamboat is difficult and dangerous, but the men relish its challenges. Not only do they find this work to be a “calling” of sorts, we find it is the platform by which Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain and found a way to put his thoughts down on paper. We see him experience adventure, loss and how he became a masterful, thoughtful and iconic writer. Who could ever doubt that Mark Twain’s writings capture the essence of American adventure and spirit? Through part fact, part fiction, we see how it all started.


The musical revolves around Samuel. He is on the stage most of the time and is given many of the show’s songs. Chase Stoeger, whom we have seen in “Cheeseheads,” “Lumberjacks in Love” and other AFT productions, takes on the role. The part is daunting, but Stoeger is a thoughtful, charismatic performer and embraces his charter with a sense of wonder. Samuel is discovering life, and Stoeger captures his varied emotions brilliantly.


Doug Mancheski plays Horace (and a minor character, Captain Klinefelter), but don’t expect comic antics this time. Mancheski is often called upon to be a clown, but in this show his delivery is reserved. He makes the most of a part that is not in the spotlight. It’s the sign of a great actor when he or she can step back and let someone else take the lead. Mancheski is that kind of actor, and we see in this musical how versatile he is.


I was glad to see two Isadoora Theatre Co. alums in the show. Four years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Chad Luberger and Mark Moede in Stephen Sondheim’s “ Assassins.” (That was the beginning and end of my acting career). Both are talented, generous actors whom have infectious drive and are very good in this entertainment. Moede is dark and threatening playing the nasty, impossible Mr. Brown, and Luberger plays Henry Clemens with warmth and sympathy.


The cast is rounded off with Lee Becker and Molly Rhode. Rhode has one of the show’s most memorable songs, “ He’s Still Here,” which she sings near the show’s conclusion. That touching song gave me goose bumps. Rhode has a lovely voice.


So, take the kids, take Mom, Pop and the grandparents. This show is for everyone. It’s a ride you will be glad you took.


“Life on the Mississippi” plays at 8p.m. Mondays and Fridays and 6 p.m. Wednesdays until Aug. 27. All performances take place in the amphitheater at Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek. For tickets and information, call 854-6117; visit the AFT office, 10351 Bella Vista Lane, Ephraim; or go to

Green Bay Press-Gazette
By Warren Gerds • • June 20, 2010


Soak up AFT's 'Life on the Mississippi'


4 Out Of 4 Stars! ****


FISH CREEK — Samuel Clemens rushes to the side of his dying brother, Henry Clemens, on June 21, 1858. He sings of seeing Henry again on "The Other Side of the River." It's a beautiful spiritual, and the song grabs the listener by the throat.


That's a scene from "Life on the Mississippi," which is in its world premiere run in Door County's American Folklore Theatre's 20th anniversary season.


We know Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain, America's golden storyteller of the 1800s.


Chase Stoeger, as Clemens as a cub steamboat pilot and cub writer, does Clemens right with his sweet tenor voice and portrayal of open-eyed eagerness.


New York-based creators Douglas M. Parker (book and lyrics) and Denver Casado (music) give Twain's autobiographical book, "Life on the Mississippi," new vitality. They were on hand opening night Friday to soak in the aura of AFT's outdoor amphitheater space and the positive dynamics of the audience.


Directed with care by Jeffrey Herbst, AFT's artistic director and the person who picked the script out of mounds of possibilities, the show has the feel of going places.


The storyline travels the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. From pilots both wise and mean, Clemens learns every twist and turn of the water while soaking in the river's "people, places and ideas."


AFT's "Guys and Does" stars Doug Mancheski and Lee Becker here play multiple roles. Mancheski's are led by a kindly pilot, Becker's by an improvising liar.


Door County residents play big roles keenly. Chad Luberger is Henry, a devoted follower of his brother and competitor in romance. Mark Moede ranges from a vile pilot to a kindly doctor.


Molly Rhode adds color in voice and personality as a sweet young woman who puts a sparkle in the eye of Henry.


The set features a square representing a pilothouse, with a revolving interior for the steering wheel and other necessities on various steamboats.


"Life on the Mississippi" is a bit out of character for AFT. It's less "Wisconsiny" than usual (although Wisconsin has hundreds of miles of Mississippi River shoreline). However, it has a story with music and song that needs to be unlocked, and what better place than AFT.