Review by Sarah Downs
I am always wary of a rock concert set in a theater. The usual decibel level and mega lighting effects won’t suit. You want to deliver music, not blow our hair back. Rocktopia has some good moments, but it suffers from indecision – rock concert or night at the theater – resulting in a production that works too hard and repeatedly gets in its own way.
The show is at its best when rock and opera intertwine. For instance, the transition from the haunting Handel aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” to Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” is both musically and lyrically appealing, giving the two singers, the gorgeous, leonine Alyson Cambridge and the lean, intense Tony Vincent a chance to sing with an authenticity that is lacking elsewhere. Later on, the combination of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” woven together with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” leaves us in no doubt that opera can be totally badass. The mash-up of styles does begin to wear thin, however, long before intermission.
Co-Creator and star Rob Evan has a relaxed, natural warmth and a big smile. One can hear the classical training in his voice, but he sounds better on tunes like U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Opera singer Cambridge, on the other hand, possesses a stunning, richly hued instrument that she has to stifle at times to match the performance level of the other singers. Unfortunately, singer Kimberly Nichole is buried in this show. Her charm fails to keep pace with the chaos; perhaps that is because she resists the urge to over sing.
“Purple Haze” is one of the greatest rock songs ever. As such, it requires more than your average rock singer. Tony Vincent is utterly miscast here. Bassist Mat Fieldes and guitarist Tony Bruno rock the Hendrix, but Vincent conveys no understanding of the ’60’s sound, and has only one performance setting – vamp rocker. (All of the performers fall into the “Look Mom I’m Rocking!” trap at one point or another. ) In another mismatch, guest star Pat Monahan, from the band Train, has been saddled with not one but two iconic Led Zeppelin tunes. Monahan’s voice is reedy and he tends to clip off lyrics, hindering his capacity to deliver these songs well. He fares much better with Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”
The only artist who successfully reaches out to the audience is Chloe Lowery, with her engaging smile and impressive vocal range. In songs like “I Want to Know What Love Is” she takes her time building to the moment she pulls out all the stops to dazzle us with her phenomenal belt sound. Like most of the other performances, it’s a bit overwrought and self-conscious, but she does deliver.
The orchestra, under the direction of conductor and co-creator Randall Craig Fleischer is very good. When they can sink their teeth into the instrumental music, they offer a refreshing respite from loud, louder, loudest. Violinist Máiréad Nesbitt is a cheerful virtuoso and pianist Henry Aronson is excellent. The rock band is tight, but Tony Bruno on guitar outshines everyone.
A splash of video screens as a backdrop creates a theatrical effect with little fuss. I wish I could say that about the costumes, which are uniformly dreadful. Alyson Cambridge’s gown combines a fun, diva-corset bodice with an ugly skirt, but at least her modesty is protected. Nesbitt, Lowery and Nichole race around stage in tasteless, thigh revealing bits of fabric that threaten to flash their crotches at any moment. I think the intent is ‘opera gown meets rocker chic’ but the effect is one of derangement. Tony Vincent is decked out in every rock singer cliché from skinny jeans to black nail polish. By contrast, Tony Bruno looks more at ease in clothes that could be from his own closet.
Any show can be a beast to produce, let alone one that attempts to merge two disparate musical styles. I applaud Evan and Fleischer their effort. However, Rocktopia needs some editing. For instance: to Nessun or not Nessun? Between “The Three Tenors” and Sarah Brightman, “Nessun Dorma” (from the Puccini opera Turandot) has been sung to death. It’s also a hell of a mountain to climb. Monahan and Evan strain their voices in the attempt, and Cambridge chimes in with two interpolated, shrill high notes for no apparent reason. If they are determined to include “Nessun Dorma” they should at least have Cambridge sing it solo. Better yet, find another piece. There really are other tenor arias in the world.
There are times when Rocktopia is more “Rock-torture-a;” it’s too loud; it tries too hard; it’s a bit cheesy, but in the end it is good fun. Just bring ear plugs.
Rocktopia, created by Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer.
Singers: Pat Monahan (through April 8, 2018, subsequent guest stars TBA); Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Tony Vincent, Kimberly Nichole, Alyson Cambridge, and The New York Contemporary Choir.
Musicians: Máiréad Nesbitt; Tony Bruno, Henry Aronson, Mat Fieldes, Alex Alexander, and The New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra.
Michael Stiller, production design; Nick Kourtides, sound design; Michael Stiller and Austin Switser, video design; Cynthia Nordstrom, costume design; Marco Vogt, hair/makeup design; Tony Bruno, musical direction. Runs through April 29th at the The Broadway Theatre. For tickets and schedule go to Rocktopia.com. Runs approx. 2 hrs 45 minutes with one intermission.