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Bill Irwin proud that ‘Show Boat’ will sail on movie screens

This photo provided by The San Francisco Opera shows the cast in a scene from the production of "Show Boat." In June 2015, digital distributor Rising Alternative plans to broadcast the show to movie theaters across the country. (Cory Weaver/The San Francisco Opera via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — If you missed the production of “Show Boat” in San Francisco last summer, you missed something big — 65 singers, actors and dancers onstage and some 47 musicians in the orchestra pit.

“It was a thrill to be part of,” said Bill Irwin, who starred in the show as Cap’n Andy. “It seemed to be a living, breathing huge but alive thing while we were doing it.”

Now the rest of us have a chance to see it, too. Digital distributor Rising Alternative plans to broadcast the San Francisco Opera’s show this summer to movie theaters across the country.

The wave of broadcasts began in Los Angeles this week and New York City is slated to get it June 12. Other cities soon to screen the Francesca Zambello-directed show include Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Jose and Honolulu.

“Show Boat” centers on a family that operates a floating theater along the Mississippi River and tells a sweeping tale of show business, racism, bitter poverty and tragic love that spans 40 years, from 1887 to 1927.

Considered the first racially integrated musical, it celebrates vaudeville, jazz, opera, spirituals and popular song with tunes by songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II that include “Ol’ Man River,” ”Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” ”Make Believe” and “You Are Love.”

The Zambello-led production premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2012 and played Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera. Irwin joined the cast — including Kirsten Wyatt, Harriet Harris and John Bolton in San Francisco — but he’d been on that particular stage before.

At age 28, Irwin made his San Francisco Opera debut in 1978 as an acrobat in a production of “Turandot” with Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballe. (“They could not quite get their arms around each other but, man, could they sing,” Irwin recalled.) Among those in the audience was Prince Charles of Britain.

Irwin would go on to be “Mr. Noodle” of “Sesame Street,” win a Tony in 2005 for playing George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and star in films such as “Rachel Getting Married.” But he remembered his first “big, memorable gig” in San Francisco.

His return last year at age 64 also was special. The sheer massiveness of his “Show Boat” — with two choruses and clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission — makes it hard to mount.

“From Francesca’s magnificently scaled vision, you’d have to scrunch it get it to be seen eight times a week in some traveling show or a Broadway house,” said Irwin. “It will be a different animal.”

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Online: http://www.risingalternative.com/program/show-boat

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