Tuesday, August 4, 2009

SOUTH IN SONORA

You know you're in serious trouble when your leading actress isnt allowed to sing...

... because she's specifically written to be so ugly that you cant imagine her opening her mouth to anything other than a moan of despair...

... and yet that's the concept, I suppose, behind SOUTH IN SONORA (1932) by Charles and Juanita Roos and Charles Wakefield Cadman. I've mentioned their work before, the rather unfortunate GHOST OF LOLLYPOP BAY, and yet, here, in a work that should be right up their musical theatre alley, we find again that something just isnt quite right.

SOUTH IN SONORA starts with a fiesta at the Rancho Gomez, where a party is in full swing to celebrate the birthday of the President of Mexico. Don Ricardo Gomez, owner of this spread, is the father of five daughters, four of whom are gorgeous, one of whom is... well... not so gorgeous. In fact, Catalina seems to be all stumbling angles and lines, incapable of ever saying or doing the right thing. But because she's the oldest, tradition says she must marry before any of her sisters, who have long decided they're sentenced to a very long spinsterhood. But the problem there is that three of the sisters have fallen in love with an American engineer and a couple of college boys doing some work on the ranch's property.

Still, all is not totally lost, as Dan (the engineer) and Paquita hit on a scheme to marry off Catalina to a bandit general who's camping near the house. Essentially, it goes like this:

(a) convince the general that Rosita (another one of the sisters, the really pretty one) is in love with the general

(b) wait for him to attack the rancho and take everyone prisoner so he can marry Rosita

(c) substitute Catalina for Rosita by putting the "bride" under a heavy veil

(d) tell the general not to remove the veil until he's off the property because it's a priceless (and therefore invaluable) heirloom

So they do and he does and a priest is summoned and the two are married and the general leaves with his new wife and there is much joy in the Gomez household.

Now, lest you think this is just some weird form of sibling cruelty, let me replay for you one scene, in which the bandit appears and takes control of the house:

GENERAL. (flourishing gun) Hands up! Everybody!

CATALINA (clasping hands over heart and gazing at the general with a fatuously enamoured expression) Oh, what a man! So bold! So brave! So fearless! I never knew there were such! A man indeed!

GENERAL. (fiercely to Catalina) Hands up, you! (threatens her with gun)

CATALINA (continues gazing at him languishingly as she slowly puts up her hands)

So it's not like they were arranging something she didnt want... right?

Two months pass. No one's heard a word from Catalina, and Paquita and Rosita are starting to think this might not have been the wisest of ideas (Gosh, ya think?). Down in Mexico City, a new president has been elected, and he sends word that he would like to be entertained at the ranch for some mysterious reason. Meanwhile, Don Ricardo has heard about what happened to Catalina and has decided to send all four remaining daughters to a convent, where, presumably, they can rot before he's willing to forgive them. He's just about ready to send them packing when Catalina appears.

... with her new husband, the bandit general.

... who just happens to be the new president of Mexico.

El Presidente tells Ricardo that marrying Catalina was the best thing that ever happened to him and asks that he forgive his daughters so they too can marry the men they love. You dont really tell a president no (even if the whole thing smacks of some rather facetious comment on Mexican politics), and it all ends happily as the curtain falls.

Now, what makes this particular work a little odd (aside from the scenes noted above and, well, the plot in general) is that, as I wrote before, this is the first time I've come across a musical where the leading female doesnt get to sing. Everyone else does: the college boys, the engineers, the four sisters, even Don Ricardo and the Bandit General, not to mention the sly Indian housemaid who gets the general there in the first place. But not Catalina — she simply stands there in the first act looking doleful (well, until the general arrives) and smashingly (and inexplicably) wonderful in the third. But she never gets to express it in song. For all we know, the General loves her because of her ability to make really good corn muffins, but the Roos and Cadman never let her say for herself.

Of course, that might not be such a terrible thing. For example, Dan's protestations of love to Paquita:

Without you, my dear
The world is drear
I love you love you love you
Dark clouds disappear
When you are near
I love you love you love you
Dull winter is gone and spring is here
Because I believe you love me dear
The sun shines bright
And the skies are clear
I love you love you love you

... or when Don Ricardo discovers the ruse:

Gone! Gone! Gone!
Look upon my wild and deep despair!

To which the sympathetic chorus replies:

Away! Away!
To the rescue we go
Before the dawn is breaking!
This bandit dog must bite the dust
For the fair maiden's taking, taking!
To horse! To horse!
And away to the hills
With speed we must go riding!
In canyon wild or mountain glen
This bandit bold is hiding!
Gone!
Gone!
Gone!

Now, in all the time they spent singing this somewhat interminable finale, they probably could have captured him, but hey, no one said operetta choruses were especially bright.

Musically, Cadman really overshadows everything else in here with a score that's by comparison to LOLLYPOP BAY bright and sparkling and lush and almost too romantic. It's all very Mexican, but not so much so that it wanders in to parody: he knows just how far to take it. There are a couple of moments when the college boys take a particular song and re-sing in four-part barbershop harmony, but that seems more of a laugh at an American style of revamping things than the Mexican original. Still, it's simply not up to his non-operetta work: he's not quite strolling, but it's damn close.

It's just so frustrating to read this and know what these three were capable of in other areas of entertainment and how scant of their talents were put into these little shows. LOLLYPOP BAY was bad enough, but SONORA seems the more heinous crime, since all three were supposedly heavily inspired in their "serious" work by the American Southwest and Mexico. I have one other work by this team that I havent really looked at yet; perhaps it'll redeem their reputations a little. But on the basis of SONORA, that's starting to seem somewhat unlikely.

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