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A Broadway classic comes to the War Memorial Opera House

Kirsten Wyatt with chorus and dancers
Kirsten Wyatt with chorus and dancers
by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Opera (SFO) began its Summer 2014 season with the first of ten performances of Show Boat, the two-act musical composed by Jerome Kern with book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II based on a novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. The novel was a chronicle of the lives of three generations of performers on the floating theater Cotton Blossom, covering the period from the 1880s to the 1920s. The musical basically distilled this all down to the plot line for a single character, Magnolia Hawks, whose parents run the Cotton Blossom and who eventually rises to become a star performer in her own right.

The irony is that Ferber’s novel was practically operatic in scope, but Broadway demanded something that would provide more popular entertainment. (Note, however, that the above paragraph called the show a “musical,” rather than a “musical comedy.”) Stage Director Francesca Zambello thus had to walk a somewhat thin line between what the musical actually was and the deeper undercurrents (a suitable metaphor in this case) of Ferber’s novel. On the Broadway side, working with Set Designer Peter J. Davison and Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, she prepared a visual feast, beginning with the massive painting confronting the audience as the set curtain. Every visual detail was true to the Broadway traditions of 1927, the year when the musical opened. This included seamless set-changing devices to guide the narrative through the eight scenes of the first act and the twelve scenes of the second. One could have blocked out all sounds of singing and music and still appreciated the unfolding of the narrative through the dynamic imagery realized by Zambello.

However, Zambello clearly wanted Ferber to have a say, too; and she achieved this in a rather unique manner. One of the darker sides to Ferber’s tale concerns her treatment of questions of race (as well as the ambiguous way in which she ultimately leaves those questions unresolved). Zambello chose to confront issues of race in conjunction with her choreographer Michele Lynch (making her SFO debut). The two of them seemed to recognize the potential of the dancers to serve as a Greek chorus for advancing the plot. However, given the nature of the plot, they apparently realized that it would be necessary to provide two such choruses, one black and the other white. Each was endowed with a generous share of go-for-broke Broadway hoofing. However, what registered with the observer was the sharp stylistic distinctions between the two. (Those even more observant will have noticed that all of the dancers took an “integrated” bow after the final curtain.)

Musically, the entire affair was held together by Conductor John DeMain, last seen in the War Memorial Opera House as Conductor for Zambello’s staging of George and Ira Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. He conducted a “Broadway pit” ensemble with the usual complement of winds, brass, and percussion and a significantly reduced string section, along with guitar (Glen Deardorff) and banjo (John Imholz). He took the performance at a brisk clip and was particularly attentive to the needs of the dancers. He was equally attentive in managing the balance of the rich choral work prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson.

The only shaky side of the performance involved the individual theatrical roles. Zambello realized her production as a hybrid of talents from the two worlds of opera and musical theater. One could see the value of this, particularly in light of how much of the overall show involved speaking roles. It also seemed to involve the use of audio technology to deal with when voices needed to be enhanced by amplification. Evidence of that enhancement ran the full gamut from barely noticeable to blatant, and that unevenness tended to mar the overall dramatic effect.

However, there seemed to be an interesting contrast in adaptability on the part of the performers. Those from the theater gave the impression that they could get used to anything. They tried gamely to keep the upper hand over the cavernous space of the War Memorial Opera House; and, for the most part, they succeeded without compromising their basic talents. In this respect I would have to single out Kirstein Wyatt. With her street-smart accent and her I-can-do-anything hoofing (both pages out of Joan Blondell’s playbook in her prime performances in Hollywood musical films), Wyatt gave her character all of the knowing sass that the role demanded.

On the other hand those whose primary background was in opera tended to seem uncomfortably out of their element. (They were out of their element, but did they have to show it?) Most disappointing was Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne, the most tragic figure in the racial undertones of the story. This may have been due to physical problems, since she was gasping audibly between each of her phrases. One can appreciate the need for the show to go on as planned, particularly for the first performance of the season; but, if Racette was grappling with health problems, they seem to have gotten the better of her.

It is worth noting that Julie is the one character whose fate is left unresolved in Ferber’s novel. The musical version did not try to patch things up with a happy ending, as they often do. It simply has Julie make a quiet exit from the Trocadero Club in New York after Magnolia’s singing talents have been discovered there. To Racette’s credit, when her acting did not involve singing, she handled this poignant scene expertly, as she managed Julie’s character when her racial background is revealed.

Taken as a whole, there is far more to Show Boat than “mere entertainment.” Zambello clearly recognized this and came up with an interpretation as attentive to Ferber’s sobering view of her characters as to the spectacle of musical theater. Most of her resources contributed to realizing that interpretation as effectively as could be desired, allowing one to overlook the few impediments that were not overcome.

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