San Francisco Music Review: SNOW WHITE & HER MERRY MEN (Davies Symphony Hall)

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by Maurice Kelly on March 27, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Once upon a time in San Francisco there were two beloved icons of the city’s music scene.  They were practically the same age, enormously talented, and lionized by legions of fans who adored them both; but by some trick of fate their paths had never crossed. The slightly older but very well-preserved of the two was Beach Blanket Babylon (BBB), the totally manic pop-culture musical revue. The brainchild of comedic genius Steve Silver, BBB has been in continuous production since 1974 – the longest running musical revue in American history. The other was the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC), the first major chorus to use the “G” word in its name, born in 1978 at a vigil for slain Supervisor Harvey Milk. SFGMC grew up to become one of the most respected and popular choral groups in the country, inspiring the creation of dozens of other choruses. Both of these darlings had so much in common – excellent musical chops, a witty flair for outrageous camp, and deep roots in the local community – that it was a complete head-scratcher why they had never made each other’s acquaintance.

Then one day a savvy matchmaker came along by the name of Dr. Timothy Seelig, SFGMC’s current Artistic Director and Conductor. He had seen BBB for the first time in the 1980s, and always thought there was potential for a promising partnership between the two groups. So, when he took the helm of SFGMC two years ago, he decided to go a-courtin’. Apparently BBB had just been waiting to be asked to dance, because his Maurice Kelly's Stage and Cinema SF review of SNOW WHITE & HER MERRY MEN, SFGMCproposal was greeted with a resounding “You betcha, baby!” (or words to that effect). The result, Snow White & Her Merry Men, which played San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall for two performances, was a marriage made in musical entertainment heaven.

The evening, showcasing the best of what these two crowd-pleasing groups have to offer, was basically a breezy, freewheeling mash-up of a SFGMC concert mixed with classic BBB shtick. The reference to “Snow White” in the title refers to the basic plot line that’s been used since BBB’s inception: With the assistance of a tour guide, Snow White travels the world looking for her Prince; along the way, she meets pop-culture icons and other characters who, by executing spoofs of popular songs, comment on everything from San Francisco-related topics to current pop culture. The actors do all this while balancing enormous hats and wigs on their heads.

As Snow White gets her manhunt underway this time, twittering and trilling hilariously in her sugar-coated baby-voice soprano, she was joined by 300 or so of her best gay friends – the tuneful men of SFGMC. One of the most striking things Maurice Kelly's Stage and Cinema SF review of SNOW WHITE & HER MERRY MEN, SFGMCabout the chorus is its sheer size. Making a big entrance while belting out the first two numbers (“California Here We Come” and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”), the singers just kept coming and coming, eventually filling a space the size of an Imax screen. Singing at full throttle, they created a goosebump-raising wall of sound. Dr. Seelig, whose musical bona fides include regular conducting gigs at Carnegie Hall, has taken SFGMC to a new level of performance confidence and skill. Under his direction, the chorus moved deftly from raucous pop tunes to sweetly haunting ballads to doo-wop back-up for the amplified BBB cast – all the while exhibiting superb control of their material. These guys were on their game.

After the opening salvo of fun-in-the-sun California fluff (including a quartet of ladies – real ones – sporting itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikinis and gargantuan bouffant hairdos that Tracey Turnblad could only dream about), the show’s pace continued along at mostly breakneck speed, with occasional slowing for Maurice Kelly's Stage and Cinema SF review of SNOW WHITE & HER MERRY MEN, SFGMCmoodier or more romantic fare (including lovely and delicate covers of “Once I Had Secret Love” and “Where Will I Find Love?”).

The two groups essentially tag-teamed each other as they moved through a series of thematic “Scenes,” such as “Tropical Splendor” (with Carmen Miranda singing Barry Manilow’s “Lola” with a banana plantation’s worth of produce on her head, while hundreds of gay men shook their maracas) and “Disco Balls” (with the SFGMC doing their signature medley of ABBA songs).  Act I closed with a delicious tribute to the Summer of Love: “Are You Going to San Francisco?” sprinkled with the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper,” and ending on a Haight-Ashbury high note with “Age of Aquarius.” By this time, the chorus had gone through almost as many costume changes as BBB – from Hawaiian shirts to rainbow-flag rain parkas to a riot of tie-dye t-shirts and love beads. These boys love to play dress-up!

And no description of SFGMC is complete without a nod to their “choralography”: synchronized body movements and gestures by the entire chorus coordinated to dramatize a particular lyric, at times moving from section to section. With such a giant chorus, the results were often spectacular.  At one point their movements Maurice Kelly's Stage and Cinema SF review of SNOW WHITE & HER MERRY MEN, SFGMCcreated visual patterns that were so intricate, I felt like I was watching a giant computer screensaver (and no, I was not getting a contact high from all the 60s psychedelia).  This was only the end of first half, and they had already packed in a lovin’ spoonful of show-stoppers.

The chorus dressed up for an equally energized Act Two, looking natty in classic black-and-white tuxedoes. For the brazenly sexy opening number, “Bring on the Men,” the chorus ended with a giant multi-tiered kick-line that deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not to be outdone, the BBB boys came out in Village People and Leather Cowboy drag to sing about the fun of living in the Castro neighborhood – there’s nothing that screams “fabulous” quite like a singing and tap-dancing Indian chief, construction worker and cop.

The small-but-mighty BBB band – led by Bill Keck on keyboard – was the exceptional musical accompaniment with SFGMC’s piano accompanists Carle Pantle and Lynden Bair. Always careful to showcase the talents of the singers, these musicians added extra oomph to an evening that was already very high-energy.

The tone took a more reflective turn for “Being Alive,” which felt like both a love song and a memorial to those who have been lost to AIDS. Pinned to the label of every chorus member’s tux jacket was a prominent red ribbon, a tribute to the “Fifth Section,” a term the SFGMC uses for all of their chorus members who have passed away (and a vivid reminder that the epidemic is far from over).

To lighten the mood, a string of songs by BBB’s über-divas got the audience bouncing in their seats again. “Barbra Streisand” did a killer cover of “At Last” (of which Etta James would have approved) and then launched into a spirited duet with “Oprah Winfrey” of the disco classic “Enough is Enough.”  To bring the act home, a very queeny King Louis XVI of France (in a Day-Glo pink wig the size of Twin Peaks) sang a rousing version of “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles, updated with spot-on parody lyrics that spoke to the marriage equality issue: “We see states where gay marriage passes / California, time to get up off your asses!” In fact, the day I saw the show, the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on the marriage equality issue, so this line brought the house down. Timing is everything.

For the finale, Snow White finally finds her Prince Charming (in the form of “Viva Las Vegas” Elvis), and the audience got to throw itself into the fun by waving its hands in the air for “Shout.” With Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” patrons were on their feet, sending SFGMC and BBB out to the wings with waves of love. As the audience filed out of the hall, everyone was asking the same thing: “What took them so long to hook up?” Well, now the match is made, and hopefully we’ll see a lot more of them together in the future. SFGMC + BBB = OMG!

photos by Kasey L. Ross

Snow White & Her Merry Men
San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon
Davies Symphony Hall
played March 25 and 26, 2013
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Maggie Greenhill March 28, 2013 at 9:55 am

I was not able to get to the city for those dates so am hoping this will be a more regular event. I look forward to making the next!

Jay Davidson March 28, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I loved the show, too. One historical correction from somebody who lived through the birth of the Chorus: You wrote that the Chorus was “born in 1978 at a vigil for slain Supervisor Harvey Milk.”

In fact, the Chorus was created four weeks prior to that tragic day. It would be accurate to say, however, that the night following the Milk and Moscone murders, the Chorus made its first public appearance.

Bob Hermann March 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm

What a show, as a performer of the SFGMC….the audience and love shown to BBB and us was phenomenal, it was fun to perform and showcase our music!

Jay Davidson March 28, 2013 at 10:40 pm

You mentioned in the review that the SFGMC was “born in 1978 at a vigil for slain Supervisor Harvey Milk.”

Since I was there, I just wanted to set the record straight that the Chorus had begun rehearsing a month prior to the tragic events of that day. It was, however, the Chorus’s first public appearance.

David and George March 29, 2013 at 10:15 am

What a fun show to be a part of. George and I love performing together and this show has been a trendsetter for both musical groups. As always we are proud to be a part of SFGMC and thoroughly enjoyed working with BBB. Any chance we can do it again?

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