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Monday, November 7, 2011

Wet Weather Can't Drown SF Parlor Opera's Outdoor Production of Susannah

Posted By on Mon, Nov 7, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Roy Patten Jr. as Little Bat McLean Patricia Urbano as Susannah Polk in Susannah. - SF PARLOR OPERA
  • SF Parlor Opera
  • Roy Patten Jr. as Little Bat McLean Patricia Urbano as Susannah Polk in Susannah.

George Carlin famously noted that the differences between football and baseball offer telling insights about culture and character. "Football is played in any kind of weather," he observed. "Rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog ... can't see the game, don't know if there is a game going on; mud on the field ... the struggle will continue!" By contrast, "In baseball if it rains, we don't go out to play. 'I can't go out! It's raining out!'" With Saturday night's opening performance of Susannah at the Zellerbach House, SF Parlor Opera proved itself to be a fine-arts outfit that legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi would approve of.

Director Tony Daussat had hoped to present all of Carlisle Floyd's gritty morality tale in the back garden of the Zellerbach Mansion. While this space is well suited to an intimate yet complex staging of the opera, it's not necessarily conducive to a warm, dry one -- but what are we, a bunch of cosseted glove-and-hose-wearing pansies? After a 30-minute delay (which the performers enlivened with an impromptu voice recital in the mansion's parlor), patrons were ushered out through the rain and into the backyard, which had been covered with a jury-rigged canopy of plastic tarps. As the rain continued to fall, music director Steven Bailey sounded the opening notes and the gung-ho cast got the show underway -- never mind the gulf between the present, soggy circumstances and a fine summer's day in New Hope Valley, Tennessee.

While there was much to admire in the performers' cheerfulness and equanimity -- at one point soprano Patricia Urbano's Susannah merrily twirled beneath a leak in the tarps, embodying the carefree charm of Floyd's protagonist -- the constant staccato of the rain substantially compromised the first act's acoustics. It was clear that the performers were having trouble hearing Bailey's keyboard, and some of the singing was almost inaudible. Daussat had planned to use more elaborate lighting and shadowplay in the staging, but the modified staging made this impossible. And with the tarp sagging ever more alarmingly under the weight of the accumulated water, nobody much objected when baritone Cole Grissom announced that the second act would be moved indoors.

The cast of Susannah. - SF PARLOR OPERA
  • SF Parlor Opera
  • The cast of Susannah.

Relocated to the mansion's parlor, the performance flourished. Urbano convincingly portrayed Susannah's descent into despair and, finally, her devil-may-care defiance -- wrongly accused of lewd behavior, the title character endures insults from hypocritical churchy types, betrayal by her closest friend, and rape by a proto-Bakkerian preacher man before picking up a shotgun and sending the lot of 'em packing. As the holy skeeze, Grissom sang with his usual power and dramatic flair, conveying Reverend Olin Blitch's snake-oily charm and seeming genuinely distraught in his final repentance (when he says he wouldn't have raped Susannah if he'd known she was "untouched," you do kind of feel for him, even as you throw up in your mouth more than a little bit).

Tenors Michael Jankosky and Roy Patten, Jr. were the other standouts -- Jankosky gave a sympathetic, appealing performance as Susannah's well-meaning yet booze-addled brother, Sam; and Patten had a solid turn as Susannah's friend Little Bat McLean. However, the entire cast could use help with their Southern accents, much as it pains this reviewer to encourage the cultivation of that idiom.

Though Saturday night made for a memorable operagoing experience, it might behoove Parlor Opera to develop a more substantive Plan B for its outdoor performances. Not all audiences may tolerate inclement weather with good grace, and it seems a shame to have to jettison so much of the intended staging because of the move indoors. Hopefully the weekend's showers represent the extent of this production's adversity -- no more water, please, and we'll also pass on the fire next time.

Remaining performances of SF Parlor Opera's Susannah are Thursday and Saturday (Nov. 10 and 12) at 7 p.m. at the Zellerbach House, 1550 Fell (at Central), S.F. Admission is $25-$65. Sung in English.

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Emily Hilligoss

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