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'Show Boat' opera with Bill Irwin premiering at SF, Zambello directs 1927 epic

San Francisco Opera hosted an extremely rare press conference Thursday afternoon with a panel from the operetta ‘Show Boat’ which opens the summer season, another Gockley/Zambello American epic. The operetta, a mix of opera and Broadway performers, comes with a twist in the form of San Francisco’s genius and clown Bill Irwin as the showboat captain Andy Hawks. ‘I’ve clearly grown into the older character roles’ Irwin joked after the conference.

'Show Boat' operetta at SF Opera with Bill Irwin
'Show Boat' operetta at SF Opera with Bill Irwin
Scott Suchman/Washington National Opera
'Show Boat' press conference with Bill Irwin (Cindy Warner, right)
Cindy Warner

Irwin was the father in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” film (2000), the father of Cindy Lou Who. Lou Lou Who works as the postman and shows a trapeeze artist's finesse swooshing back and forth on a ladder without knocking himself out on a ceiling beam. Irwin in his earlier film days also played a Shakespearean character Tom Snout, a follower of Kevin Kline's character in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1999). Kline led a band of roving actors through the English countryside. When the troupe ends up really having to perform, Irwin’s character Tom Snout claws his way to the theater ceiling to escape. He scurries up a ladder frantically only to be yanked down unceremoniously by his fellow actors.

However. Zambello says Irwin as Hawks encapsulates the whole story during the production. The panel addressed skeptics about the mixed cast and also stressed the glorious music including an operatic voice for ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man’. Zambello notes there is some dance for the captain.

Zambello says she and Maestro DeMain have worked together a lot but there’s still new material to find whether it’s Wagner or Kern.

The production will be sung in English and recorded in high-definition for future release on DVD and Blu-ray. Performances start June 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm and run through July 2 at 7:30 p.m..

Gockley’s ‘Show Boat on the Nile’

Gockley has taken ‘Show Boat’ to Egypt where it was referred to as ‘Show Boat on the Nile’. Zambello encapsulated the themes involved and how inter-racial marriage was still illegal in many states until 1957, during our lifetime. Empowerment of women plays out in the story too, with a woman who must strike out on her own, has a child and must be self-supporting without a man there.


Zambello noted how Edna Ferber wrote this piece, the book, about race in America from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. It’s also groundbreaking for having a female protagonist who goes out as an abandoned woman and makes a life on her own. She said the logistics show how the country was still divided and that race and class continue to be salient issues in this country. ‘Show Boat’ originally had a black chorus and a white chorus and the black performers could not have friends and family in the audience.


How the director and captain work out the interpretation of the father and captain’s role is a work in progress. Zambello says with a smile there is room for pantomime. Irwin however while known for being a distinguished scholar and side-splitting vaudevillian clown does take on dramatic roles including that of medical doctors and has worked on detective television shows. How he interprets this captain, a family-oriented man with an adult daughter on board, could go any direction.

Heidi Stober plays the captains’ daughter Magnolia who was raised on the boat. Stober and Irwin sat side by side at the conference. Heidi talked about how she will be playing guitar on stage although she plays piano in real life. She had an almost humble, calm demeanor, appearing wholesome, modest and articulate.

Maestro DeMain

Maestro John DeMain sat between Francesca Zambello and Heidi Stober, nibbling on his plate of New Orleans themed bites by Chef Dean of the opera house caterer. DeMain conducted the opera’s Porgy & Bess. Irwin asked Maestro about the decision to use a non-Kern song in the show, ‘Fairwell My Lady Love’. Stober's role starts as a teenager who falls in love. Stober will be dancing to ‘Dance Away the Night’, which is not always included.

“We are telling the story from Magnolia's point of view” says Maestro.

Maestro notes that Pat Racette will be singing her cabaret style song in a mid range and true to the original, it’s not chesty (his term) or too operatic. Racette will be going on from this cameo role to the principal in ‘Butterfly’ following ‘Show Boat’. ‘Butterfly’ wasn’t originally in the summer line-up but fell into that slot for budgetary reasons and ticket sales Gockley said.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Maestro talked about how the banjo is used a lot for effect but that must have amused Gockley, who has played banjo at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

There is no piano in the show and guitar keeps the rhythm. We have one flute, one oboe, a couple of trombones. We don’t have saxophones . . . . There’s an acoustical authenticity and if the house weren’t a 3500 seat house, he wouldn’t use amplification. There won’t be much, Zambello noted amplification of the spoken parts. Perhaps the Broadway performers too but as little as possible said Gockley.

Vintage sound, authentic 1927

Maestro says he’s using the original 1927 charts and the production has an authentic early Americana sound. Vintage. ‘Ol’ Man River’ has such dignity in the 1927 version, he said. He’s just omitting the 1927 overature. However, alluding to the five film versions, “we are doing the 1936 version” with Irene Dunne, not the Ava Gardener version.

Dr. Kip Cranna, formerly of Kip Cam fame, served as emcee for the conference and wore a business suit. Irwin sat in a conservative dark suit with a dark blue shirt and no tie at the other end of the table. Irwin, addressing the question about “Show Boat” being his first foray into opera, asked Kip just how far back he went with San Francisco Opera. Irwin noted this isn’t his first time on the San Francisco stage since he appeared in 1978 in “Turandot” as a $25 a night acrobat.

Irwin discussed how the story has Edward Albee moments and how the relationship between the captain and his wife Parthy have an intensity and a complexity, although she’s usually right if you track the story through. The scenes are short and they better stay short I know, he said. I get off and change costumes while Morris Robinson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’.

Parthy Ann Hawks will be played by the woman who played psychiatrist Frasier’s agent BeBe Glazer on ‘Frasier’, Harriet Harris.

Irwin will return to San Francisco in September to perform again with ACT. Most recently he starred in ‘Endgame’ at ACT. Prior to that, the uproarious French farce ‘Scapin’ at ACT that was off the Richter scale of comedy.

He’s going home he says after ‘Show Boat’ ends in July. He is married with an adult son, Santos.

San Francisco Opera will host an insight panel with the cast and production team on Monday, June 2 at 6 p.m. in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 50 Oak Street. It’s free for opera members or five dollars for the general public.

Tickets to ‘Show Boat’ cost $24 to $379. Standing room and student rush tickets cost ten dollars cash. On sale at ten a.m. on the day of the performance.

The opera runs two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission. It’s a company premiere.

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