Going below into the cargo hold of S.S. Red Oak Victory, hearing swing music after the quiet, panoramic sweep of the Bay Area from its decks at night, is to move from the contemplation of thousands of distant lights over water to the close-up ensemble movement and singing of a multiethnic cast of thirty, costumed in wartime (that’s World War II) dress, who present Rivets, an original musical by the Galatean Players Ensemble Theatre, celebrating the Rosie The Riveter legend and touching on the reality of life and work on the Home Front—on site: the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. Tonight through Sunday afternoon are the final performances.
With music mostly by Mitchell Covington and book and lyrics by Galatean artistic director Kathryn G. McCarty (who also plays, with brio, a working mother), directed by Clay David, Rivets is midway between a musical and a pageant, with vignettes of the romantic and musical aspirations of different characters sketched in, along with the harsher realities of racism, sexism, uprootedness—and the international conflagration raging abroad—that threaten the ripening of these ongoing desires of ordinary life under those extraordinary circumstances.
Unlike other staged works set during wartime at home—like Neil Simon’s canny, sometimes acerbic Lost in Yonkers—or books which reflect on that era (humorist Ludwig Bemelman’s surprisingly vivid Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and Dirty Eddie come to mind), Rivets gets its focus from a sense of the masses of people from all over a continent thrown together to turn out warships and transports at an unprecented rate and volume (the S.S. Red Oak Victory, a cargo ship commissioned on Dec. 5, 1944, after 87 days, with 40 miles of welded seams and 5,624 rivets, just one case in point)—and the comraderie and clashes that spring up between folks who had never socialized with, even never seen, the likes of each other before.
The big cast is up to the challenge, their great group moment coming on an evening’s spree the night before some of the boys ship out to the Pacific, when a romantic vocal number by Peggy Rutledge (Leah Tandberg)—daughter to McCarty’s character, Grace—is followed by Scatter Patter (Jay Lino) hitting the stage all duded up, jiving over a tune, "Black Out Shuffle" (by Jeff Covington), while the rest deftly shuffle, twirl and hop to the sounds, only to be broken up by a real blackout.
Rivets is underpinned by a sense of the treadmill repetition and immediacy of the work, of ersatz, urgency, a blur of faces—a little bit like WPA murals, The March of Time newsreels, Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy or Soviet film and theater, all of a decade or so before—but somewhat sentimentalized. Its more delineated characters (a blind saxophonist, hired by a radio station, with a black girlfriend who dreams of becoming a singer; a soldier shipping out, intent on marrying his grammar school crush, a nurse whose sister disapproves) are like bubbles on the surface of the tidal flow.
The only appearance of Rosie The Riveter is two actresses (Tara Roach and Rebecca Lenk) playing the legendary role as war bond publicity models, taking off furs that slake the shipyard cold to pose for coverage, while spouting slogans that make the working women groan—one of the show’s best moments.
The radio announcer who introduced the show as “Living History” closed it last Friday night after curtain call by introducing two surviving Rosies in the audience, one who’d worked in the Sausalito shipyards—presumably Marin Ship—where my father’s mother cooked for the workers 65 years ago.
Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. on board the S.S. Red Oak Victory, tour available before Sunday matinee
Tickets $15-$20, complimentary to Rosie The Riveters, Kaiser Shipyard workers, WW II vets and uniformed military
(925) 676-5705, www.galateanplayers.com