Saturday, June 28, 2014

Walking Out (Again)

So, yeah, it was undoubtedly a mistake not to swap my Show Boat ticket for a performances either earlier or later in the run, because lots of shows, and especially musicals, would look weak after the incredible SFS Peter Grimes.

But I honestly think I would not have liked it much in any event: the schtick seems prehistoric, sort of like watching Barber of Seville, where it seems as though every staging has schtick that's been around since 1816. Show Boat isn't that old, but this staging makes it feel that old. It is....just painful, in various ways.

Two of the comic characters talk, all the time, as though they have sandpaper in their throats. Apparently this is supposed to be funny. A third sounds like Kristen Chenowenth, or maybe I mean Jean Hagen's character in Singin' in the Rain - you know, the one whose voice and pronunciation are so bad that she can't possibly be in a talking picture?

I did not care much for the songs, which are....okay, but not much better than that, though it was nice to hear Old Man River in its intended context. The book and lyrics are not much better, and of course you can see the major plot points coming a mile away whether you've read the synopsis or not.

Lastly, the whole damn show is amplified. I understand why, but I don't have to like it:
  • So the dialog can be heard
  • To bring the non-operatic voices up to approximately the volume of the operatic voices
All of the principals wear body mikes. They are always on for dialog; they are on for the smaller voices when they are singing. The big-voiced singers (Morris Robinson, Heidi Stober, Patricia Racette, and maybe others) sound amplified when they're singing because of ambience microphones, which are used to help balance out the quality of sound.

Considering that part of the reason for doing a show like this in an opera house is that Broadway houses don't use full orchestras and don't use singers who can, you know, sing, maybe SFO should only be hiring singers with operatic voices when it does musicals.

As far as I can tell, pretty much everybody reviewing this show loved it, so you may take me as the token grump, since I couldn't even get it together to enjoy this show as a period piece.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear. (Did you really leave at intermission, and not hear the Trockadero scene and the song Bill?)

Well, every point you make is valid (I came up to see it last Sunday, so I know what you're talking about), with the exception of one: "I did not care much for the songs, which are....okay". Really, the score is a miracle -- and it's a score, not just a collection of songs. I don't suppose you will find it worth the effort to get to know the piece better, but I have to think that if you did you would revise your opinion.

I've come to the conclusion that Show Boat is more of an unobtainable ideal than a finished product. Its original conception was impractically large, so that every realization of it, including the orginal Broadway run, is necessarily a compromise. It was under continuous revision right from the first out-of-town tryout, with 6 different endings used at one time or another (two of which are lost), so it has textual problems like Don Carlos. It's written for types of performers who no longer exist: operetta singers a la Lehar for the romantic leads, vaudeville comics, and Helen Morgan, who was unlike anyone before or since. If you're in love with the score and the scope of the thing, you basically have to accept this.

Among the pluses of the SFO performance were: use of the original banjo-and-tuba inflected Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations (which were lost until the famous 1982 Secaucus New Jersey Warner Bros. warehouse discovery), giving the real sound of 1920s Broadway; a relatively full text, including lots of Kern's dialogue underscoring, as well as the famously cut chorale Mis'ry's Comin Round (paid for I suppose with big cuts in the music to the World's Fair scene at the top of the second act); superb conducting from John DeMain, who has a great feel for both the operetta and gospel/ragtime elements of the score; and a really charming performance from Heidi Stober.

Among the negatives, in addition to the ones you mention: a gag-ridden and charmless performance from Bill Irwin; a flat ending that was not one of the ones written by Kern and Hammerstein (which in every case had a big number for Kim); and the anachronistic 1946 overture. The biggest negative, from my point of view, was the exaggerated and melodramatic style of line reading in the dialogue, used I suppose to project in the too-big house. They performed the whole thing as if it were The Parson's Bride, which left them no way to make the point that the plays presented on the boat are ridiculous, dated melodramas.

But I was still thrilled by it, because in spite of the problems the feeling of Show Boat was there. That's was the positive reviews are responding to. And fortunately, the 1936 James Whale movie has finally been released on DVD for the first time: much too short at 1 hour 50 minutes, but with a cast who all had done their roles on stage, including 4 from the original Broadway cast (Helen Morgan! Paul Robeson!). The DVD can be ordered online from Warner Archive.

Here is how you get to know Show Boat: you watch the movie, and then listen to John McGlinn's 3-CD studio recording of everything ever written for Show Boat, made possible by the Secaucus NJ warehouse recovery of the original score. And for extra credit, read Miles Krueger's book "Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical", out of print but in libraries. Then tell me if the score is ... okay.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, I left at intermission. By the time I got to BART I was thinking maybe I should have stayed, just to hear the whole thing - although one friend says that Act II is a mess with no direction. Not sure that can be right, after reading the synopsis.

What I summed up as "too much schtick" is what you spell out as Bill Irwin's performance (praised around here, but I hated it) and the line reading. They did not need that, given the amplification.

I take your point about the score, but I just didn't like the music that much. I may take a look at the DVD, not sure.

Sibyl said...

Thank you and Phew! I long ago saw Show Boat in a good professional production (Donald o'Connor as Cap'n Andy), and came to the conclusion then that the show is unplayable. I was hearing from all around that this SFO production was going to be a must see, and was havering about going based on that pressure. Having read your review I am grateful I did not go. I would only have gone for Bill Irwin and Harriet Harris, but more pictured myself waiting for them outside the stage door than actually dealing with the show itself. Eh feh.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sibyl, sorry - this got lost in my inbox. I am glad to have helped. :) As noted, I wound up a little sorry I hadn't stayed, but that night, well, I just wanted to leave.

After checking out Helen Morgan on YouTube, I expect to be checking out the DVD some time.