Imagine the audience’s reaction when the musical “Show Boat” premiered on Broadway in 1927.
“Instead of a line of chorus girls showing their legs in the opening number singing that they were happy, happy, happy, the curtain rose on black dockhands lifting bales of cotton, and singing about the hardness of their lives,” theater critics Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright wrote in “Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century.” “Here was a musical that showed poverty, suffering, bitterness, racial prejudice … and of course show business.”
In short, Eyre and Wright wrote, audience members were witnessing the birth of a new genre: the Broadway musical.
“It’s a story about America. It’s a story about where we were,” said Brian Asher Alhadeff, Opera San Luis Obispo’s general and artistic director. “It really is an amazing time machine.”
But “Show Boat” can be a challenging story to tell, Alhadeff added, both in terms of its scale and its subject matter.
Like Opera San Luis Obispo’s October 2013 production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” “Show Boat” finds the company teaming up with community groups. They include Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo and the Morro Bay High Choral Ensemble.
Civic Ballet artistic director Drew Silvaggio will serve as choreographer, while Erik Austin, co-founder and artistic director of San Luis Obispo’s Kelrik Productions, is directing the show.
“This is the biggest thing the opera has ever done,” Austin said, from the sizable cast to the massive sets, on loan from Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre. “Their shows have kept getting bigger, but this is on such a grander scale.”
One of the aspects that makes “Show Boat” so formidable is its time frame, Alhadeff said. The musical takes place between 1887 and 1927, a time of cultural and artistic upheaval.
“It really is a musical history course in all styles of dance and music” from these eras, he said. “You’ve got vaudeville, swing, stride piano, early jazz, and all this is lushly framed in a brilliant golden-era symphonic orchestration.”
Silvaggio said he’s used both music and costumes to inform his directions to dancers.
“I really just like to come up with a natural, original voice in choreography,” he said. “But the music produces a type of movement. … That’s inevitably going to bleed in.”
“Show Boat’s” historical setting also influences its depiction of African-Americans, which many consider offensive. Black characters speak in an outdated Deep South dialect and use terms that today would be considered racial epithets.
Opera San Luis Obispo’s production preserves that language in some cases for the sake of context and discards it in others, Alhadeff said.
Before deciding to produce “Show Boat,” Alhadeff said he consulted with San Luis Obispo County’s African American community, including the predominantly black congregation of House of Prayer Church of God in Christ in San Luis Obispo.
“Respect and sensitivity is the key to doing this piece,” Alhadeff said, noting that the musical is often credited with opening up public discourse in the arts about racism.
At the same time, he said, race relations aren’t necessarily the central focus of “Show Boat.”
He compared the show to “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “a great cowboy story that just happens to be set during the Civil War.”
“ ‘Show Boat’ is a wonderful romance and life drama” that just happens to be set during the Reconstruction era, he said.
IF YOU GO
7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$10 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org