Thursday, June 5, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Show Boat

June 3, 2014

The talk of the town in San Francisco is whether an opera company has any business presenting an American musical. In the runup to opening night, SFO director David Gockley presented some pretty good arguments: 1) As the first successful musical to pursue a serious narrative (based on an Edna Ferber novel), Show Boat is an historically important work. 2) In an arena that regularly presents dialogue/music creations like Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow and The Magic Flute, how exactly does Show Boat not fit in? And 3) the realities of 21st century economics leave opera companies as the only entities capable of presenting musicals of this size. In the end, Gockley's best argument is what SFO (and their co-producers Chicago Lyric, Washington National and Houston Grand operas) put on stage: a lavish, endlessly entertaining performance that does a superb job of mixing operatic and Broadway talents.

The scene-stealers are decidedly in the Broadway camp. It is virtually impossible to take one's eyes off of Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy. His movements - a combination of Astaire's double joints and Donald O'Connor's comic physicality - are mesmerizing, and he backs it up with an assured stage presence and even a decent singing voice. The highlight is Cap'n Andy's one-man telling of the end of the melodrama, in which he basically beats himself senseless. (To fans of Irwin's extraordinary career, from SF's Pickle Family Circus to Northern Exposure to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, none of this is surprising.)

As the desperately ambitious Ellie Mae, Kirsten Wyatt is a one-woman cyclone, singing "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" with a nasal twang that could cut steel and dancing with her partner, Frank (John Bolton) with a stunning precision. Her bad acting in the melodrama is brilliantly funny.

On the opera side, we have Michael Todd Simpson, who plays riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal with a confident elegance and delivers a couple of the more romantic (dare we say operettish?) ballads, "Make Believe" and "You Are Love" with a lush baritone. (Perhaps the best thing, from an audience perspective, is that you don't have to worry about opera singers reaching the notes.)

For the production's most famous opera singer, Patricia Racette, the results were more mixed. Playing Julie, the showboat singer trying desperately to hide her mixed-race heritage, Racette's tone was a little rough, perhaps because she remained so long beneath her usual register. She did, however, have the right feel for the "black" song, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." In the second act, Racette displayed the passionate sing-acting that she has always demonstrated, performing the torch song "Bill" as the abandoned, alcohol-possessed Julie fell to pieces before our eyes.

Heidi Stober performed well as Magnolia, Cap'n Andy's starstruck daughter, but her voice remained a little hidden until the second act - perhaps, not coincidentally, as Magnolia rose to stardom and unleashed some genuinely operatic top notes. Another mystery is Angela Renee Simpson, who fails to fully "pop" as Queenie but for the sublimely musical "Mis'ry's Comin' Around'" scene and the Charleston romp of "Hey, Fellah!" The latter is helped not a little by a marvelous black dancing troupe, performing the intricate jazz-age steps of Michele Lynch.

Morris Robinson is known to SFO audiences for his Commendatore in the 2011 Don Giovanni, so it shouldn't have been such a shock when he spoke his first lines as Joe and that voice came out. But it was. His delivery of "Old Man River" was epic, a fitting tribute to Paul Robeson, for whom the role was written. The follow-up commentary on "white folks on the Mississippi" retains its edge even in 2014.

Additional comic delights came from Harriet Harris (best known as the talent agent Bebe in Frasier), who played Andy's fantastically sour wife, Parthy Ann. South Bay favorite Kevin Blackton, himself the owner of a Vader-like voice, lent an aura of imposing menace to Sherif Vallon. Peter J. Davison's sets displayed an impressive ability to fly in and out - the gambling parlor seemed to come out of nowhere - as well as conveying a sense of grandeur with the steamboat and Chicago settings. John DeMain led the orchestra in a solid, exuberant outing; it was a great treat to hear jazz rhythms coming from a full-size orchestra. Stage director Francesca Zambello, an SFO favorite, kept her players energized and active throughout, particularly in the handful of crowd scenes.

Steam Boat itself remains a troublesome masterpiece, for in reaching for so many themes and plots it leaves quite a few unresolved, particularly the fate of Julie (and her infamous miscegenation tragedy) and the open-ended state of Magnolia and Gaylord's family. When Gaylord returns after a 23-year absence, he is reunited with his daughter, which is vastly touching if you ignore the fact that she appears to be 14.

Fun fact: This is not Bill Irwin's first SFO appearance. He performed as an acrobat with the Pickle Family Circus in a 1977 Turandot starring Montserrat Caballe and Luciano Pavarotti.

Through July 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $24-$379, 415/864-3330,

Images: Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy; Kirsten Wyatt (Ellie Mae) and chorus; Michael Todd Simpson and Heidi Stober as Gaylord and Magnolia; Morris Robinson as Joe. Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of eight published novels, including Operaville and the recently released Nature Boy.

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