Friday, June 24, 2005

Of Thee I Sing

At the end of the long San Francisco Symphony season every year, Michael Tilson Thomas puts on a mini-festival around a theme. It has ranged from "American Mavericks" to "Russia" to "Beethoven and His Contemporaries" and there is usually a big centerpiece work, most often a concert version of an opera.

This year the festival is called "Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice" and the big show is a semi-staged concert version of two Gershwin musicals from the early 1930s, "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let 'Em Eat Cake."

They are political satires with many of the same characters overlapping in both, and though some of it's badly dated, most of the political stuff is startlingly fresh. (For instance, the president is being impeached "over a woman, can you believe it?")

I really expected to enjoy the evening more than I did. The casting was deluxe, including Mo Rocca, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, and the great Kevin Chamberlin stealing the show as a French Ambassador. The simple set by Douglas Schmidt was beautiful, though I hated the "multimedia" projections above the stage.

The problem was that the musicals were designed for a Broadway theater, which are for the most part small places. Davies Symphony Hall is a huge barn that holds around 3,000 people. So in an effort to get around this, they used about 100 singers from the Symphony Chorus. They are one of the world's great ensembles, but their huge, massed sound was absurd in this music. I kept waiting for them to break into "Boris Godunov" or something. There was also a weird balance between them and the principals, who all had body microphones.

The amplification was done professionally, and it helped the audience understand the very witty Ira Gershwin lyrics, but the mixture was strange. And then there was the orchestra, playing exquisitely, but without any "swing," as my friend Richard Clarke put it. It needed to be much jazzier.

I left at intermission, though I might return for the second half on Friday or Saturday. Two musicals in one night is asking a bit much from an audience. If I wanted to spend three-and-a-half hours at a show, I'd cross the street to the opera house.

There's a small company in San Francisco called 42nd Street Moon that specializes in semi-staged concert versions of "rare" musicals, usually just with piano accompaniment, and I found myself wishing I was watching their version instead. They are in a tiny theater in the Embarcadero and they don't use amplification. Check them out.

No comments: