The hopes were high that Cumberland Blues, a musical utilizing songs by The Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, would become a fixture in San Francisco, where alternative lifestyles seem to guarantee a ready audience for the show's sensibility. Instead, the Michael Norman Mann musical ran less than a week of regular performances and closed Aug. 1.
"We closed for all the traditional reason a commercial show closes," said spokesperson Bob Fisher (Aug. 3). "We had a soft advance sale, sales were soft during previews, and we got negative reviews, which put the final nail in the coffin. Critics and audiences were unanimous in applauding the concept of using these songs in a musical theatre context. But this was not the production for those songs." The play told the story of a mine owner who has a deathbed wish to see his three estranged sons one last time.
Asked about future plans for Cumberland Blues, Fisher said, "Well, there's talk of coming up with a new book, new direction and design for a mounting in Chicago, but that's really just talk at this point."
After a workshop world premiere that received significant industry attention at San Jose Stage Company (June 5-30), Cumberland Blues began previews July 23 at SF's Stage Door Theatre and opened there July 29. The show was initially scheduled to run through Sept. 6.
The SF mounting was co-produced by Jonathan Reinis Productions (of SF), JAM Theatricals (Chicago) and Spivak Entertainment (of Philadelphia), in association with San Jose Stage. Spokesperson Fisher told Playbill On Line (July 8), the mounting was hoping to stay in San Francisco longer than September, while plans were underway "to do sit-down productions in Washington DC, Chicago and Philadelphia." Those plans have, of course, fallen by the wayside. Author Michael Norman Mann had told Playbill On-Line (July 8) the show had a couple of cast changes and minor rewrites since its San Jose premiere. Spokesperson Fisher added that some Deadheads had begun championing the show. "We've had an enormous respose from Grateful Dead fans on the internet," said Fisher, "and they're extremely well organized. They've put together groups, tours and convoys to the show. More than half our performances in San Jose were sold out, without any real advertising or marketing. We've received full cooperation from the Dead organization, especially Robert Hunter, since this is the first time he's hearing his lyrics in the context of musical theatre."
Hunter-Garcia songs incorporated into the show included "Uncle John's Band," "Ripple," "Friend of the Devil," "Easy Wind," "Brokedown Palace," "Brown-Eyed Women," "Cumberland Blues," "High Time," "Palm Sunday" and "The Wheel." Also included in the score were the Hunter-Lesh song "Box of Rain" and the Hunter-Anton composition "I Will Love You."
Playwright Mann, a Drama-Logue Award winner, also wrote Box 27 (winner of the 1997 GLAAD Media Award and scheduled to be produced in Chicago and in San Diego in 1998), Separate Crosses, She Sat Behind Me and Godot is Dead -- Merry Xmas.
For ticket information ($25-$37), call Stage Door Theatre, 420 Mason St., at (415) 433-9500 or check out the show's official website, http://www.cumberlandblues.com.
-- By David Lefkowitz