Thursday, December 25, 2008

SAILOR MAIDS

Mistaken identities (and expectations, for that matter) abound in SAILOR MAIDS (1926) by Charles Ross Chaney (cover art by George Hauman), which is listed, inexplicably, on iraniraqwar.com -- I'm not kidding: a used copy of this operetta is selling there for $69.00, and what it has to do with Iran, Iraq, or their war completely escapes me. Ah, the mysteries of the internet...

So let's take a look at what we do know for sure. Chaney was born in Kansas but spent most of his life in the Fresno area of California, where he worked primarily as a school superintendent. Apparently coming into his talents as a composer late in life, he studied under several composers and music teachers before turning his attention to writing operetta. SAILOR MAIDS and THE BELLE OF BARCELONA were his two biggest successes, and he was one of the few in this genre who wrote book, words, and music.

SAILOR MAIDS, like BETTY LOU, is an interesting look at "how the other half lives": our heroine Frances Marie has just turned eighteen and is celebrating her birthday by launching her new yacht. Her crew is a band of young ladies known as the Sailor Maids, and her pilot is to be Edward Dover, a childhood friend whom she hasnt seen in eight years and yet somehow is her fiancé -- go figure. Problem is (isnt there always a problem?), Edward hates the water. He knows zip about yachting. What seems to temporarily save him is that, when he arrives at the birthday celebration, he's mistaken for a caterer employed for the occasion.

Now, sure, he could have just said, "Hey, it's me, Eddie!" -- but he doesnt. And why, you may ask? Because he's seen Frances' friend Jeanette... and he likes what he sees. Or, as he sings it:

I'm a caterer
But why they chose me for this position
Is a mystery I cant solve
Someone surely is mistaken
What I know about catering
Would not be worth repeating
If some trouble I would avoid
I will have to be explaining
A caterer, a caterer, a caterer
Who does all sort of fancy things
Who spoils the broth and spills the beans
I wonder if I can do it
To me it does not seem amiss
To wear a sporty suit like this
Perhaps appropriate a kiss
I wonder if I will rue it
If I may to the kitchen go
And with that maiden be
What jolly fun, o what a treat
How fortunate for me
It's quite a bold advance
But I will take a chance
I'll take the risk and hie me to the kitchen

As you can see, lyrics werent Cheney's strong suit.

So: what to do about Frances? Edward, in a moment of sudden inspiration, turns to another late arrival, a genuine yachtsman named David, and convinces him to assume the role and sail the yacht. For his part, despite some hesitation, David's more than happy to, if it gets him closer to Frances. The complication is Edward's father and Frances' father have both seen the real Edward, but Edward dismisses David's concerns over that with a light "oh, I'll say it's just a lark".

And then there's Gerald. Captain of the rowing crew, the not especially bright Gerald's also infatuated with Frances Marie and has asked her countless times to marry him, but she's never given him an answer one way or the other -- but she promises to do so "tonight". Given what we know about her feelings about the man she assumes to be "Edward", methinks poor Gerald is sailing en route to some unhappy news.

Meanwhile, David is getting more and more upset by the awkward position Edward's put him in: he's starting to really like Frances (and she seems positively doting on him) and doesnt think he should be, since he's not really Edward at all. And Edward's finding it difficult to get quality time with Jeanette because he's under the command of the house cook, Olga, who's a demanding Swede that consistently has to chase him down and send him back to the kitchen to work. So, by the end of the first act, the charade is still afloat, but only barely.

Act Two is later that night, during the birthday celebration. The sailing went well, Frances is even more enamoured of "Edward", Gerald is even more frustrated, the fathers congratulate each other on a successful love match between their children. David's borderline frantic, but Edward stops him from going to the fathers and confessing all by proposing another plan: bring Jeanette and Frances here and tell them everything. Once they're won over, the fathers will have no choice but to acquiesce... or so Edward thinks. But of course, not even that goes smoothly: Edward is sent yet again to the kitchen just as Jeanette has brought Frances to hear something the "caterer" wants to tell her. Jeanette thinks that it's some kind of scandal, and Frances immediately fears that Gerald may have overheard her and "Edward" earlier.

And now David (as himself) encounters the two fathers -- and when he has the opportunity to set things aright... for some weird reason he doesnt. Or maybe it isnt so weird, because by now he's really gotten to like Frances. Really.

Well, just when you think it cant get any more confusing, Jeanette suddenly blasts out of the house, claiming the "caterer" has stolen something from her, her most prized possession. Edward (the real one, remember) protests: he hasnt done any such thing! But remember: in everyone's eyes, he's a mere servant, not one of the guests, so it seems that no matter what he says, he's still a thief. Well, now he has no choice but to confess who he really is, and, as you might expect, Frances doesnt take the news very well. And is she not only furious with Edward: she's livid with David. And when poor Gerald tries to console her, she make sit plain that she wants to be alone. So much for Gerald, who exits stage left.

Well, hopelessly infatuated David makes one last pitch at Frances. Jeanette admits that what Edward stole was her heart (aww!). The fathers, still confused, try to straighten it all out and fail miserably until Edward takes control of the situation and pretty well forces everyone's hand, including his own onto his still doubtful father. It seems a double wedding is in the air as the curtain falls.

SAILOR MAIDS is remarkable in that it's a very book-heavy show, much more so than most in this genre. It almost has to be, given how much plot and counterplot there is roaming around the stage. Generally, in these things you get a page of dialogue, then a six page musical number. SAILOR MAIDS reverses that, with pages of dialogue connected with very short songs of maybe a page and a half or two in length. Chaney has a very workable farce buried underneath his operetta, but it's covered over with so many trivial musical numbers (and they are trivial, compared to even the work by the Clarks) that the ending is a slam-bang, pile-on-the-information sprint that rams the conclusion home. There are some rather remarkable pieces of structure, particularly in how Edward manages to be "Edward" to the fathers and "the caterer" to everyone else, sometimes literally within seconds of each other, but these are exceptions. The rest is so heavy, weighted down with mechanics, that a play that should float seems instead to flounder and ultimately sink.

Musically, he's slightly more successful: the few numbers that do work have a certain music-hall sensibility to them, like "Take the Name I Offer You", for Edward and David. The ensemble pieces, such as "A Thief! A Thief!", are more light opera in tone, giving this thing a curious mix that's neither one thing nor the other.

But know who I feel sorry for the most? Not Frances: she's marrying well -- David is the son of a very successful shipbuilder, so I imagine her sudden interest isnt just based on his chiseled jawline. So's Edward: Jeanette seems the kind of girl who'd put up with just about anything from her man. Truth be told, both of the leads have a streak of cruelty in them a meter or so side: Frances simply toys with her men -- and then gets all self-righteous when it's played on her. Edward is too much of a coward to simply say who he is and what he wants and be done with it. Both treat their "inferiors" (i.e., folks like Olga) as barely a step above civilized (which is pretty ironic right there). But poor Gerald, about the only truly honourable character in the play, one whose sub-plot is treated as casually as anything, has spent the entire play waiting for an answer to his proposal, and Frances just writes him off -- and for that, he's probably lucky. After his dismissal, he's not seen again, so one can only wonder what happened to him. Hopefully his rowing crew consoled him well, because I can definitely imagine, seconds before the final curtain, him racing back onstage with an ax.

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