The Old Majestic

Local Arts Reviews

The Old Majestic

McCullough Theatre, through May 2

Running time: 1 hr, 35 min

Once upon a time, there were people who made their living performing specialty acts in theatres all across the land. They were called vaudevillians. Their way of life passed from the scene long ago, but sometimes they can still be heard. If you stand backstage at an old theatre, you can catch, like the rustle of the velvet curtain, the patter of the comedy team, the happy clatter of the tap shoes, the yip-yap of the trained dogs. To a certain ear, they are sweet sounds, light and cheery and gladdening to the soul.

Those ghostly sounds are the heart of The Old Majestic, an operatic valentine to vaudeville from composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez and librettist Mary Medrick. The title refers to San Antonio's Majestic Theatre, where the action takes place, but it also has meaning in the lives of these entertainers, most of whom endured a vagabond's life, ever on the move from one fleabag hotel to another, working all too often in less-than-grand theatres before less-than-enthusiastic audiences. Still, there remained for them something splendid about stepping onto the stage; it transformed them. Rodriguez and Medrick honor that idea in "Your Majestic Night," a song that describes the power of the spotlight to melt away your cares and anxieties and make you larger than yourself.

It's a sentimental notion, but then the show celebrates a kind of performance that trafficked shamelessly in sentiment: the love song, the downtrodden clown, the magic act – all things that play on our belief in wonders and virtue. The opera does the same, with characters and plot devices that echo the popular musical comedies of the day: showbiz troupers dreaming of the big time, a vain star who makes everybody miserable, a Mutt-and-Jeff comedy team, lonely souls who discover romance, an unexpected windfall. Rodriguez and Medrick don't merely pay tribute to this theatre of bygone days, they sweep us up in its conventions, the better to make us appreciate its diverting and uplifting charms.

Those charms are evoked with a disarming sweetness in the world premiere staging by UT Opera Theatre. (The work was commissioned by the San Antonio Festival in 1988 but has never received a full production.) Some of it comes from performers who look to have been plucked right off 42nd Street, most notably Leeanna Leinberger, who projects the true heart of the ingenue, her wide eyes and wider smile gleaming under platinum waves; and Brian Carter, who inflates the troupe's resident illusionist with the bombast and bulging eyes of a silent-comedy heavy – he's ego with a waxed mustache. Even when the student performers don't quite nail the style of the period – and character comedy of that era is not as easy as it appears – they project an endearing enthusiasm for it. Whether milling about the backstage set or melodramatically acting out the Valentino silent The Son of the Sheik, the cast projects the same irrepressible eagerness with which Mickey and Judy put on all those shows back in the day. Most of the show's sweetness, though, comes from the performance of the music; both the orchestra, brightly conducted by David Neely, and the singers caress Rodriguez's melodic score, relishing its beauty and tenderness and sense of time gone by.

In the end, The Old Majestic is just a reminder of that time gone by, a captured moment of the past. It's of a twilight not for gods but for mortals – and mortals who sing and dance and clown at that. But it's no less worth hearing for that, and the sound – oh, how sweet it is.

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The Old Majestic, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, Mary Medrick, Majestic Theatre, UT Opera Theatre, San Antonio Festival, Leeanna Leinberger, Brian Carter, David Neely

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