When I walked into the Broadway Theatre the other day, I was filled with trepidation. I was not sure how an afternoon at Rocktopia was going to pan out. My friend and fellow theatre writer was optimistic but I wasn’t so sure. The name of this show was enough to give me pause and a low level of anxiety. It sounded pretentious and arrogant to me. I grew up on the rock music this presentation was promoting, and having strong emotional connections to the music of Queen, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Journey, and Heart (to name a few), I couldn’t fathom that this was a good idea. I did appreciate the idea that Rock Music and Classical were cut from a very similar cloth, and mashing them together in celebration sounded exciting and possibly a grand way of honoring them both, but sadly this concert-style event only made me value the originals a thousand times more than I already did. Half way through, I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre, put in my headphones, and listen to the true rock legends saved on my iPhone, not these fake posers pretending to be legendary. This concoction felt phony and misguided, making me alternate between winching and giggling at this pathetic excuse of a stage show by Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer (co-creator, musical arrangements), Tony Bruno (guitarist and music director), William Franzblau (executive producer, and Rob Evan (co-creator and vocalist).
I’ll admit, there were a few moments, maybe three, when the concept of what they were trying to do actually worked. Marginally. The Elton John song, ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ (Click here for the magnificent George Michael and Elton John singing it right) mashed up (click here for their video) with the classical opera, ‘Lascia Ch’io Pianga‘ by George Frideric Handel worked on an emotional level. It had a quality of beauty and the layering added to its power, but it’s almost impossible to rise to the same level as the original or even the powerful George Michael version, as he brings true emotionality to the phrasing and an organic realness that was rarely present in this show. Tony Vincent (vocalist, Broadway’s American Idiot) does his best to climb up to the same level throughout the show, as does the glorious opera singing of Alyson Cambridge (vocalist, The Met’s La Boheme), who thankfully within this number, held back the campy gyrations that litter the rest of the show and performances, giving it some depth and earthiness.
Chloe Lowery (vocalist, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) did a good job with the Heart song, ‘Alone‘ but I couldn’t watch her continually preen around the stage as she did near the end of this number and when she performed Foreigner’s ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is‘. It just felt so desperate, like a slice out of an American Idol episode when everyone had to perform a rock song. Rocktopia in these moments, just feels so typical; the song choices and the performances. Especially when it came to the classical side of the program. Nothing too challenging, nor any piece of music that any audience member and their rock and roll grandmother couldn’t automatically say, “Hey, I know this one!“.
There was one tiny moment in the finale when the out-of-place Kimberly Nichole (vocalist, known as the ROCK ballerina) brought a tinge of jazzy uniqueness to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, possibly one of the best rock songs ever created. Beyond that one verse though, that classic Queen song was massacred by a generic rendering that almost made me weep for Freddy Mercury. Check out what a real rock legend looks like:
Vincent, in full inauthentic theatrical portrayal of how a rock star would sing a song, has a pretty darn good voice, and I can see why he and the others are up there on stage, but they all are not strong personalities nor real enough to stand up beside the legends they were setting themselves up to be compared to. It seems almost unfair. Nichole does a better job with the overly dramatic performance of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky and her rendition of Patti Smith’s Because the Night. Her talent is wasted in this cluttered mess of a show, just like Pat Monahan, special guest vocalist and lead singer of Train, who has a strange and unique voice, just the kind that could save this show from mediocrity, and it’s used well within the songs he has been given to perform, but he just doesn’t have a voice I loved nor wanted to listen to. Others probably will disagree, and that’s ok with me. That is the nature of this show, and I almost felt bad for the guy sitting beside me. He obviously (possibly) wanted to pump his fist in the air, and I hope my displeasure with Rocktopia didn’t stop him, although taking in his stillness, I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t as disappointed as I was.
The jamming out battle of guitarist Tony Bruno and the Celtic violist, Mairead Nesbitt (Celtic Woman) presents some true musical talent, and I got the parallel that the violinist should be seen as the rock guitar god equivalent in these two dimensions, but she looked like a demented Nicole Kidman playing a wood nymph violin player who couldn’t stop crouching like a tiger and flipping her hair all over the place. I was afraid that she, and singer Lowery were going to get whiplash and need a neck brace by the end of the show. Head honcho, Rob Evan strolls out and does his best to wind up the crowd, singing rock and opera suitably well. I will say that many were sucked in by this, and good for them I guess, as these people were their audience. Not me, and I must say I gasped in horror as I saw the projections on the back wall, that generally resembled the generic wallpaper and screensavers that come free with any laptop (Video design: Michael Stiller, Austin Switser), started showing photos of people like Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, Prince, and Freddie Mercury, and a score of others as the cast performs ‘Adagio for Strings/Who Wants to Live Forever/We Are The Champions‘ asking us all to stand up and swing our arms in the air. Insulting and ridiculous. And naturally, they followed this by Ode to Joy and Don’t Stop Believin’. I should have placed a bet on that one.
This song compilation epitomized everything that was wrong with this cheesy bland concoction. Every number feels obvious and standard, sung by some fine vocalists playing stereotypical characterizations of what a ‘rock star’ should look and sound like It is as if they were checking off the boxes of Rock and Roll movements and gestures without one ounce of real or unique personality behind it. I’d rather have watched a season of Glee then listen to their bland arrangements (musical arrangements: Randall Craig Fleischer; music director Tony Bruno). Or better yet, I would gladly spend another night in the theatre if and only if someone like Kelly Clarkson would sing the entire lineup of songs, because she would have found a way to honor these songs while bringing her own nuances to each and every number. That would have felt real. But these performances of anthems that didn’t even come close to being groundbreaking, with big rock star kicks and overhead clapping that were basically begged out from us, made me winch and giggle, rock and rolling my eyes with each one of their desperate manipulations and forced dynamics.
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