Tuesday, March 27, 2018


"Mixed Musical Arts"

Wikipedia tells us that “A rock opera is a collection of rock music songs with lyrics that relate to a common story.” But what would a show be that was both a collection of rock music songs and classical numbers, including operatic ones, that didn’t relate to a common story? A rock and opera concert, which exactly describes Broadway’s newest arrival, Rocktopia, subtitled “A Classical Revolution” in the program.
Tony Vincent, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Now ensconced at the Broadway Theatre (take that, purists) for a six-week run, Rocktopia is a straightforward, two act, two-hour and 15-minute concert performance featuring half-a-dozen soloist singers, five featured musicians, the 18-member New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Randall Craig Fleischer), and, by a rough estimate (they’re not listed in the program), at least three dozen (count ‘em!) members of the New York Contemporary Choir.
Kimberley Nichole, Tony Vincent. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Mairead Nesbitt, Tony Vincent, Pat Monahan, Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Rocktopia is one of those odd, crowd-pleasing (mostly) shows that occasionally show up on Broadway and drive traditionalists up the wall while appealing to audiences who know all the tunes (the pop ones, at any rate) and appreciate even cover versions of them. Such visitors will sing along, clap in rhythm, wave their arms from side to side, and shoot videos on their smart phones if the performances are respectful to the originals, and there are at least one or two performers with household recognition. 
Kimberly Nichole. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Unlike at so-called jukebox musicals, the only stories these fans need are the ones they have in their heads about their personal relationships to what they’re hearing. They can get excited from a single chord before a song itself is heard, while others, less informed, sit beside them wondering, even during the song, what it’s called, when it was created, and who first sang it.

The producers obviously felt that such ticket buyers would be in the minority so the playlist they provide in the program is an alphabetical one found under the legally required "Music Credits" on the "Staff for Rocktopia" page. It lists only each number's writer(s), not even mentioning who sings it in the show.
Chloe Lowery, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Rocktopia is inspired by the notion that there’s a connective aesthetic tissue tying the classical music of composers like Strauss, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini (to mention only those in Act One) to the strains of The Who, Styx, Elton John, Heart, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, and Muse, again staying with the Act One playlist.
Tony Vincent, Mairead Nesbitt, Alyson Cambridge, Kimberly Nichole, Chloe Lowery, Tony Bruno, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Every classical rendering is blended with a familiar pop tune having some musical resemblance, so we hear Handel’s “Lacia ch’io pianga” paired with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” or Tschaikovsky’s “Overture from Romeo and Juliet” with Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” In the evening’s most successful fusion, given during the preplanned encore as the concluding performance, the entire company joins in on an exciting mashup of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Mairead Nesbitt, Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The featured singers, each capable of competing for volcanic vocal power, not only render such well-known hits as “Come Sail Away,” “Purple Haze,” “Something,” and “We Are the Champions,” but once or twice show off their lung-bursting chops on operatic numbers, like “Nessun Dorma.” The renditions are all traditional, none offering notably original takes. I suspect the audience would revolt at anything bordering on the sacrilegious.
Pat Monahan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The star soloist is Pat Monahan, front man for the popular San Francisco rock band Train, who will be with the show until April 8, when he’ll be replaced by someone else, with Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander booked for the show’s final week, from April 23 to 29. Monahan covers Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” joins the others on Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” does a duet on Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” rocks it with the ensemble on a mashup of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” and solos on Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” in the encore segment.
Chloe Lowery. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The other rock vocalists are Kimberley Nichole, Chloe Lowery (who had the crowd on its feet for Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”), Tony Vincent (channeling Freddie Mercury), and Rob Evan, the show’s co-creator who also serves as the laconic emcee (his spoken words are little more than a company introduction and a “Hello, New York!” here, a “Hello, Broadway!” there). The gorgeous, gifted Alyson Cambridge proves you don’t have to weigh 300 pounds to sing ear-splitting grand opera.
Tony Vincent. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Alyson Cambridge. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Rob Evan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Of the five musicians who get spotlighted, the most charismatic virtuosos are guitarist Tony Bruno (the show’s music director), looking like a slim cross between Springsteen and Bowie, and Celtic violinist Máiréad Nesbitt, a diminutive, golden-tressed sprite.
Mairead Nesbitt. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
This sizable entourage performs on a set—designed by Michael Stiller, who also did the lights—divided into two banks of metal platforming, one at either side, with the upstage area occupied by 15 vertical stripes on which countless video images, designed by Stiller and Austin Switzer, are projected. Many are of beautiful nature scenes (sunsets, clouds, flowers, water, etc.) others of exploding lights, equations, architecture, historical and documentary clips, and so on, usually with a connection of some sort to what's being sung.

One of the more specific examples is Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” being sung as a memorial to deceased pop stars (Cobain, Jackson, Presley, Tupac, Bowie, Lennon, Mercury, and so forth).
Mairead Nesbitt, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before; too often, in fact, the images distract from the performances in front of them. The idea of including, even briefly, some artfully created video background on the individual songs, including composer, original artists, year of creation, and so forth, seems never to have occurred to the producers.
Tony Bruno. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
And, of course, this being a rock concert, we get a full-scale demonstration of what modern lighting technology can do, with rotating spots, crisscrossing beams (sometimes sending blinding rays directly into your eyes), and every other trick in the designer’s bag of computer-assisted tricks. The sound, as expected, is sometimes suitably deafening, although my plus-one, a regular concertgoer, surprised me by saying arena concerts are actually much louder!
Tony Vincent, Kimberly Nichole, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s not much else to look at, apart from the soloists (who sometimes join with others in choral numbers), the women dressed in showy outfits, with lots of leggy exposure, the men in a variety of black ensembles: costumes are by Cynthia Nordstrom, with Mimi Prober credited for “fashion design.” There are no dance routines surrounding the songs, and, oddly, no one is credited with the direction.
Mairead Nesbitt, Pat Monahan. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
After Rocktopia is gone, the Broadway Theatre will begin preparing for the gargantuan musical King Kong. The sounds of Rocktopia may be causing this venerable theatre (1924) to tremble but we can only wonder how the joint will withstand the big ape’s debut, especially with the Empire State Building only two miles away.


Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway (at 53rd St.)
Through April 29