SAN DIEGO — If Starlight audiences like their entertainment light, they also appear to enjoy a good old-fashioned tear-jerker. When "Shenandoah," a serious musical that preaches the solid virtues of strong family ties and rugged individualism, opened at the Starlight Bowl on Thursday night, there were few dry eyes in the house. Not even the misty rain that started falling during the second act could distract these first-nighters from the heightened emotionalism on stage.
"Shenandoah" wallows in old-fashioned sentimentality as it tells the story of a Virginia isolationist bent on keeping his family a safe distance from the ravages of the Civil War. The show deals with violent death (usually a taboo in musical theater), and even features maudlin graveside conversations with a departed wife.
But "Shenandoah's" Tony Award-winning scenario is engrossing, and it has an appealing score that turns rambunctious when the country hoedown-style dancing begins. Under Don and Bonnie Ward's direction (they choreographed the show as well), the pacing is brisk. And the show's good-natured spirit shines through--even in its darkest and corniest scenes.
The Wards wisely cast most of the roles with competent singers. Consequently, the songs--a melange of styles from sentimental ballads and hymns to rollicking country music--are delivered in fine style, despite a few ragged edges among the ensemble.
The thrust of the exuberant male dancing is left to Derryl Yeager (a veteran of "Cats" and "Chorus Line") and young Brad Bradley, a newcomer to the limelight who exudes raw talent and unbridled energy. With these two dynamos leading the pack, the show's rip-roarin' dance number, "Next to Lovin' I Like Fightin'," comes close to approximating the no-holds-barred roughhousing of the original. The Anderson men also make a lively brouhaha out of the jubilant "It's a Boy" number.
And once the dancing got going Thursday night, it never stopped--not even in the wake of noisy assaults from aircraft. Unfortunately, many of the show's dramatic moments were seriously undermined by the frequent stopping of action.
The bedrock of any production of "Shenandoah" is a strong actor-singer for the male lead. Starlight made a fine choice by casting Stephen West as Charlie Anderson, the young patriarch who tries vainly to protect his brood from the rapidly encroaching horrors of the war.
His operatically trained bass-baritone is well-suited to the taxing vocal demands of the role, particularly in the aria-like "Meditation" song. And he managed to make the cloyingly sweet sentiments of this devoted family man seem natural, when they could easily have bogged down in bathos.
Alice McMasters (Jenny) and Gail Wolford-Arnhym (Anne) provide the only feminine voices in this sturdy cast, and both handle their duties with aplomb. They make a winsome pair sharing secrets in the prenuptial duet. Then each has a chance to shine on her own.
McMasters is every inch the plucky ingenue in "Over the Hill," and Wolford-Arnhym gives an exuberant salute to freedom when she teams up with the little black boy (Albert Jones). It's an engaging scene--unpretentious and full of unforced emotions.
Ten-year-old Albert has a show-stopping scene with 9-year-old Nathan Wing Bush, the youngest of the Anderson sons. Their voices are too thin to carry in the Starlight Bowl, but the little troupers won the audience over just the same with a spunky show of brotherhood and tolerance in "Why Am I Me?"
"Shenandoah" abounds with opportunities for interesting lighting effects, and Barbara DuBois' designs took advantage of most of them. C. Murawski's minimalist setting was adequate but uninspired (particularly his attempts at suggesting trees). And Milton Greene took charge of the pit with his usual skill and attentiveness.
The song "Shenandoah," theme song of the movie that inspired the musical, was never meant to be part of the show. But Starlight used it to excellent effect to build the dramatic crescendo at the end of Act 1.
"Shenandoah" was already considered old-fashioned when it debuted on Broadway in 1975. Nevertheless, it was a big hit with Starlight-goers the first time it set up camp here eight years ago, and it appears to be heading for another victory in San Diego.
"SHENANDOAH" A musical with music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell, and book by James Lee Barrett, Udell and Philip Rose. Staged by Don and Bonnie Ward. Music director-conductor, Milton Greene. Choral director, Fred Rigby. Scenic designer, C. Murawski. Lighting, Barbara DuBois. Sound designer, Bill Lewis. Costume coordinator, Tara. Starring Stephen West, Scott Ehredt, Derryl Yeager, Keith Rice, Alice McMasters, Gail Wolford-Arnhym, John Racca, James Eldon, Brad Bradley. With 8:30 p.m. curtain times through July 19 at Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park.