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January 2, 2005

Clemens on Clemens

From: The Leader, NY - Jan 2, 2005

By Derrick Ek

In the span of about a month, Elmira's Clemens Center will host three shows inspired by one of the city's favorite sons, legendary storyteller Mark Twain.

Hoping to draw audiences of 8,000 people or more for the series of performances, the Clemens Center has spent the past few months looking for ways to involve the community and turn the event into a so-called "salute to Mark Twain."

The first show scheduled is Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" Feb. 11.

It's a one-man theatrical performance with Holbrook, an accomplished actor, taking the stage as the spitting image of Samuel Clemens, complete with white suit, wild hair, bushy mustache and cigars. He masterfully recounts many of Twain's stories, anecdotes, jokes, reflections and satirical commentaries, making the audience believe they are watching Twain himself, and not the actor.

Holbrook is said to have memorized 27 hours of Twain's works, so his performances vary, despite that fact that he has taken the stage as Twain more than 2,000 times. He debuted the show in the '50s, and brought it to Broadway in 1966. That year, Hol-brook won a Tony Award for best actor in a play. The following year,

his act was taped for a CBS special that won an Emmy.

Holbrook still plays Twain about 25 to 30 times each year.

The Clemens Center will host "Big River," based on Twain's classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," March 15 & 17.

The novel tells the story of a young boy who runs away from his drunken, bigoted father and meets up with an escaped slave named Jim. The pair's journey on the Mississippi River is a statement on slavery and a portrait of life on the big river during the 1800s.

The original production of "Big River" opened on Broadway in 1985 with an eclectic soundtrack by singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who rose to fame for his quirky country songs such as "King of The Road." "Big River" won seven Tony Awards, including best musical, for numbers such as "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?" "Waiting For the Light to Shine," "Muddy Water," "Waiting For The

Sun To Go Down In The South" and "Worlds Apart."

The version that will come to the Clemens Center is produced by Deaf West Productions, a Los Angeles theater company featuring deaf and hearing-impaired actors. Their revival of "Big River" debuted in L.A. in 2001, and recently the cast did a three-month stint on Broadway before going on tour.

The show includes seven deaf actors, performing alongside hearing actors. The dialogue includes both spoken English and American Sign Language, blended together with music and dancing. For parts requiring the deaf actors to speak, another actor voices the words. The show, directed by Jeff Calhoun, stars Tyrone Giordano, Daniel Jenkins and Michael McElroy as Huck Finn, Mark Twain and Jim, respectively.

The third Twain-related show at the Clemens Center is a 60-minute production of "Huckleberry Finn" geared for schoolchildren in grades 4-8. Two shows - at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on March 9 - will fill the seats with kids from local schools.

Several events are timed to coincide with the two bigger productions - Holbrook and "Big River." The National Soaring Museum and Tanglewood Nature Center are teaming up Feb. 12 for Winterfest, which will include music, ice skating, snowshoeing, a dog sled team, a snowman-building contest and chili tasting, said Lisa Bartlett of the Soaring Museum. A shuttle bus will run between the two museums.

Winterfest is set for the day after the Holbrook show. The Horseheads Holiday Inn is offering a package deal which includes two nights of accommodations, tickets to the Holbrook show and to Winterfest, along with breakfasts and dinners, said Sheila Thomas, the hotel's general manager.

According to Cynthia Raj of the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, several other Twain-related events are in the works. While not confirmed, they include a reading of love letters between Samuel Clemens and his wife, Olivia, by Elmira artist Sharon Mitchell. Elmira College will probably make its Mark Twain Study and Mark Twain exhibit available as well.

Things like essay contests, lectures, Twain features in book stores and libraries, Twain impersonators, walking tours, and promotions in downtown businesses have also been discussed, said Dennis Madden, director of presenting at the Clemens Center.

Copyright © 2005, The Leader All rights reserved.