The show went on.
Despite all the drama off stage — an ongoing strike by local union musicians, along with the replacement just four days ago of three principal performers after the national actors’ union supported the striking musicians — Fresno Grand Opera steamed on schedule into the Saroyan Theatre Friday night with “Show Boat.”
There are wonderful moments in this show — and some uneven and bland ones, too. (And on Friday a few too many opening-night jitters.) But overall this “Show Boat” is a nice production of an important piece of theater history. The play might seem a little creaky at times in terms of narrative and structure, but it offers glorious music and lyrics by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Strong performances from some of the principal performers (who came from both the opera and musical-theater worlds) add a nice polish to the show, and it’s fun to watch hard working and talented community-theater actors get to do their thing as members of the ensemble on the big Saroyan stage.
There’s one additional performance of “Show Boat” 2 p.m. today (Saturday).
Theatergoers were met by picketing musicians and other union supporters on the sidewalks outside the theater and at the entrance to the Saroyan parking lot. Once inside, the most visible evidence of the strike was the rousing reception at the top of the overture given by the audience to the “Show Boat” orchestra, made up of non-union musicians.
Considered the first true Broadway musical, “Show Boat” is an epic with a sprawling narrative and time frame covering nearly half a century, but at heart it’s the story of Magnolia (Jessica Medoff), the daughter of a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, who falls in love with a handsome but shiftless gambler named Gaylord Ravenal (John Brandon). A subplot involves Magnolia’s best friend, Julie (Robin Follman), who is part black — and married to a white man, which creates a stir. Startling in its time, the musical acknowledges racial issues in the Deep South. (Some critics today see the script, which was revised in the early 1990s to eliminate some of the more blatant racial references, as a compelling recreation of an important historical period, while others still see it as outdated and offensive.)
There are also quite a few laughs, with rich comic roles for Magnolia’s quibbling parents, Cap’n Andy (David Edwards) and Parthy Ann Hawkes (Tessa Cavalletto), and a lighthearted subplot involving a flirtatious actress named Ellie May (Camden Gonzales) and her fast-talking boyfriend, Frank (Scott Reardon).
Meanwhile, as we follow all these stories, the show’s most famous tune, “Ol’ Man River” — sung by Joe, a dock worker (Patrick Blackwell), who along with his wife, Queenie (Judith Skinner), offers a glimpse into the lives of African-Americans at the time — casts a sort of existential backdrop to all the laughter and tears, suggesting that our hectic routines and human traumas cause barely a ripple in the strong, never-ending current of the river.
Director Valerie Rachelle — whose crisp choreography in this limited dance show left me wanting more — does a valiant job keeping the complicated narrative marching forward. And though she tries hard to infuse this period piece with a contemporary sensibility, the production still has moments of old-fashioned stuffiness. (Tom Wolfgang’s lighting design is unremarkable.)
Some further thoughts on the show:
The sound. The opening musical number “Cotton Blossom” was tentative. It didn’t help that the amplified sound (always a big challenge at the Saroyan — but one that is solvable with the right expertise) was tinny and the lyrics nearly unintelligible in the opening number, at least from where I was sitting in Row M of the orchestra section. (There seemed to be a variation in sound quality among the performers depending on individual wireless microphones; the principal performers, at least, must have gotten the better ones.) Overall the sound did get better as the evening progressed, but it never achieved the full, rich balance between vocals and orchestra that a show such as this needs to be able to stir the soul.
Standout principal performers. As Queenie, Skinner is wonderful, projecting a warmth and sass that fills the hall — and vocally she’s in top form. Brandon, as Ravenal, also boasts impressive vocals, booming through “Till Good Luck Comes My Way, and his character has nice romantic chemistry with chemistry with Magnolia. Edwards makes for a strong Cap’n Andy, though his performance was a little too addled at times for my taste, overwhelming some of his carefree banter with the nuanced Cavalletto. Reardon has fine comic timing and is a highlight as Frank, and Gonzales’ Ellie May is sweet and fun.
Criticism of the principals. Much as I tried to bond to Medoff’s performance as Magnolia, I couldn’t. She was in fine voice, but she didn’t evolve for me enough onstage from naive young girl to weary middle-aged matron. Robin Follman, whom I’ve lauded in the past, likewise doesn’t connect as Julie, and her vocal style was stiff and unconvincing on the important song “Bill” — a surprise considering Follman’s superior acting talent. And although he has a powerful vocal instrument and can belt it to the rafters, Blackwell did not have a good night in terms of intonation in his role of Joe, several times going way sharp on the various incarnations of “Ol’ Man River.”
The ensemble. There’s so much great Fresno-area talent on stage, from Greg Ruud as a racist engineer to Brent Moser as a leading man aboard the riverboat. Ben McNamara excels in a small but memorable role. And one of my favorite moments of the show is the Charleston number in the last scene. It’s fun to see such familiar faces as Nicholle Debbas and Dominic Grijalva translate their usual dazzling stage energy from Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater to the much bigger venue of the Saroyan. (They both shine in the larger space.)
The orchestra. I think it’s safe to say that more people in the hall than usual were hyper-vigilant of the musicians in the pit in light of the ongoing strike — including me. The ensemble, conducted by Andy Anderson, sounded just fine for the most part, with just a few times — in the softest, most exposed sections of the score while playing under dialogue and in incidental music during scene changes — that some minor intonation problems and tentative cohesion as an ensemble were revealed. Overall, the music was nice. The orchestra fulfilled its obligations to the “Show Boat” score.
In the end, this Fresno Grand Opera production comes across exactly like what it is: a hybrid of a professional show and a community-theater production. Does “Show Boat” stand up to the polish, passion and precision of the company’s best recent operatic productions — of its ravishing “Macbeth,” say, or steamy “Carmen”? No.
I was critical of Fresno Grand Opera’s foray into musical theater with “South Pacific,” but I’ve also tried to be open-minded and supportive. This production doesn’t change my overall view that Fresno Grand Opera sets itself up for a big challenge when it does musical theater. There’s a lot of competition, you could say. Accomplished touring productions — all but “Wicked” charging a much cheaper top ticket price than the opera — come through the Saroyan on a regular basis.
In the meantime, however, such quibbles are nothing more than a few ripples in a mighty river. In a divisive world, “Show Boat” made a lot of its fans and supporters happy Friday night. And for that the company can be proud.