Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Show Boat” opens San Francisco Opera’s summer season—discounted tickets options

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello.  Photo  ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello. Photo ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s going to be a memorable summer at San Francisco Opera (SFO) as the company opens its Summer Season with a dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” a performance that promises to be a uniquely American hybrid of opera and rousing Broadway musical. Both a poignant love story and a powerful reminder of the bitter legacy of racism, “Show Boat” was a theatre landmark that contributed such now standard songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  “Show Boat” holds a special spot in the history of musical theater in that it was the one of first musicals with a believable story where the songs existed to move the tale forward.  Under the baton of music theatre-maestro John DeMain, these songs will come to life.   Based on the 1926 novel Show Boat by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the story focuses on a performing troupe aboard the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat in the late 1880s, and follows their turbulent lives over 40 years.  Captain Andy Hawks (Bill Irwin, Tony Award winning actor, with fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the NEA, Guggenheim and Fullbright,  and a Bay Area favorite at A.C.T. ) and his bossy wife, Parthy (Harriet Harris, Tony Award winning actress), steer this floating company through its ragtag existence. But they cannot protect their stage-struck daughter, Magnolia (the ebullient soprano Heidi Stober), from falling for a dashing stranger, Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simson), a riverboat gambler.  And then there’s mixed-race Juli, the emotional core of the story (Patricia Racette, SFO’s go-to soprano who has dominated the past season with several impressive title roles).  Illegally married to a white man, she is posing as white and just bound for trouble.

Acclaimed stage director and production designer Francesca Zambello’s scale production opened at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 2012 and the Chicago Classical Review declared it “a triumph—a stylish, fast-paced and colorful show that had the capacity audience on its feet, cheering loud and long.”  A co-production of four major American opera companies, “Show Boat” has already sailed to the Houston Grand Opera in January 2013 and the Washington National Opera in May 2013, gathering accolades long the way.

Dance is the fabric of life on the show boat and the production will feature a lot of high-energy, high kicking punchy dance routines by choreographer, Michelle Lynch, who also worked on “Hairspray” on Broadway.  “Show Boat” spans some 50 years and Lynch has integrated popular social dances from the period into the production, which ought to be dazzling with Paul Tazewell’s plush period costumes.

The first edition of Edna Ferber's Show Boat which established the popular author as a first rate story-teller.  The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River.

The first edition of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat which catapulted the popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for “So Big” (1924), short story writer and playwright to further fame. The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River. The opera closely follows the book.

SFO General Director David Gockley is proudly awaiting “Show Boat’s” arrival:  “Show Boat” will be done in grand opera fashion in the way the creators conceived. The Opera House is—I believe—the appropriate venue for these great classic musicals that require full-voiced, ‘legit’ singing.”

Approximate running time is two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.  Sung in English with English supertitles.

Ten performances are scheduled from June 1 to July 2, 2014.

What were Show Boats?   Show boats or showboats were floating theaters that traveled along the major rivers of the United States from the 1870s to the 1930s. The performers lived aboard the vessels. With song, dance, and dramatic productions, show boats provided song, dance, and dramatic productions for small riverside towns that were otherwise quite isolated. Edna Ferber, who had never heard of show boats, was immediately intrigued when she learned about them in 1924 from one of a producer of one of her earlier plays.

Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself… I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes and making outlines. (Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, Doubleday, 1960, pp 297-304.)

NOT a steamboat: In order to move down the river, a show boat was pushed by a small tugboat, which was attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on it, since it would have had to be placed right in the auditorium. Ever since the box-office success of MGM’s 1951 motion picture musical Showboat, in which the boat was inaccurately redesigned as a deluxe, self-propelled steamboat, the image of a showboat as a large twin-stacked vessel with a huge paddle wheel at the rear has taken hold in popular culture.

In the spring of 1925, Ferber traveled to Bath, North Carolina and spent four days aboard one of last show boats in the country, the James Addams Floating Theatre, which plied the Pamlico River and Great Dismal Swamp Canal. The material she gathered fueled her novel which she spent the next year writing in France and New York.


2 Awesome SFO Ticket Deals:

SPECIAL TWO-DAY SALE Enjoy 40% Off Summer Operas!

Whether you’re still working on your tax return or your refund is burning a hole in your pocket, now is the time to treat yourself and your friends to this world-class opera and others from SFO’s summer season!  For two days only, San Francisco Opera is offering its biggest sale of the summer—40% off select performances of Show Boat, La Traviata and Madame Butterfly.  This offer is only available online and valid until Wednesday, April 16, 2014.    BUY TICKETS   Enter Code: TAX40

Save up to 30% when you buy tickets to all three of SFO’s summer operas.

Can’t make a decision by April 16th?  Call the Box Office at 415 864-3330 to select your own dates for all three Summer 2014 operas and save 30% on tickets.  This discount offer is not available online.




April 14, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A.C.T.’s Samuel Beckett double bill—“Endgame” and “Play”— through June 3, 2012

Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, left, is Hamm and ) and A.C.T. core acting company member Nick Gabriel is his servant, Clov, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play,” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for.   Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963.  These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.

Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side.  A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right.  Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus.  Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity.  One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.

A.C.T. core acting company member Annie Purcell (left), A.C.T. core acting company member Anthony Fusco (center), and A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen (right) in Samuel Beckett’s Play, performing together with Beckett’s Endgame at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other.  Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function.  Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated.  Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect.  Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers.  A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1).  The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.

What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences.  When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil.  He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him.  When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).

Bill Irwin portrays the invalid, Hamm, in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” performing together with Beckett’s one-act “Play” at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase.  Beckett himself was an avid chess player.   Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life.  Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope.  Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs.  Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.

The setting is minimalist.  A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver).  Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov.  Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.

Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm.  Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season.  In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.

Nagg (Giles Havergal, left) and Nell (Barbara Oliver) in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performing together with Beckett’s one-act Play at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, June 3, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for.  When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence.  In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance.  So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.

Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it.  There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.

Run-time:  Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes

Cast Play: René Augesen (W1), Anthony Fusco (M), Annie Purcell (W2)

Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)

Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging

A.C.T. InterACT Events:

Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.

Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters.  Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately.  Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).

OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.

PlayTime New!:  June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.

Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run.  Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment