Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review: A Rocky Rock and Roll Memory

Bio-musicals are all the rage. Rather jukebox musicals that tell the lives of infamous musicians using their songbook as the score. The unspoken lives of legendary rock stars serve as wonderful source material but capturing the perfect way to tell their story is imperative. In the latest string of bio jukebox musicals comes Rock and Roll Refugee, following the early life of rock goddess Genya Ravan. Presented by Royal Family Productions, this musical thrives in music and lyrics but falls into the traps that similar musicals can't avoid.
For those who may not know who Genya Ravan is, Genya Ravan is a rock and roll pioneer who led the all-girl band, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, the first all-girl rock band in history to be signed to a major label. She may not be a household name like others of her generation but her place in rock history is notable. Yet Rock and Roll Refugee avoids that story to tell the story of a young girl who escapes Poland and the Holocaust with her family and finds a life in America. With the music by Ravan, with additional music by Daniel A. Weiss, and a book by Chris Henry, Rock and Roll Refugee is like a first chapter of the complete Genya Ravan saga, telling her life story right before she becomes a star. The device Henry uses to tell Ravan’s tale is through memory. Memory plays and musicals are a useful device when realized correctly. And this all is dependent on that first moment. How the memory begins. Unfortunately, how Henry establishes the memory is problematic. The opening montage begins with young Genya, or Goldie or Genyusha as she was formally known, on a train with her family, fleeing for freedom. Genya has a moment of panic, dreams up a young girl who passes her a future record she would record which then prompts a light on future Genya on the upper level of the set presumably remembering her past. This sequence is essential for storytelling. With future, or present depending on how you see it, Genya not being the first image, it’s hard to truly establish this as her memory play. It feels more like Genyusha/Goldie predicting the future. With this vital moment instituting how this play will be told, things become messy. Genya appears on the loft at all times but where exactly in time and space is she? You can imagine that it’s likely a concert but when she’s in between songs, she just sits and remembers. And drinks. Genya has no dialogue. In the world of jukebox musicals, Rock and Roll Refugee is like the offspring of Beautiful and Movin’ Out. Like Beautiful, there’s a concert device that establishes the memory and like Movin’ Out, a sole singer is responsible for the majority of the score as the ensemble tells the story below. Once the device is established, the life of young Genyusha/Goldie is told in an interesting manner. They are merely highlights that string along a very loose character journey. There is very little arc for Goldie. We see elements of what made her the person she became but not how it truly affected her. Goldie’s family is a crucial element in storytelling. Goldie’s relationship with men plays a very important part in Rock and Roll Refugee. Between Goldie’s abusive father to her dangerous neighbor, these emphasize a strong theme. When it comes to her father, we see that her mother couldn’t stand up to the man, but her sister Helen ran off to escape. And this is a big plot point. Once Helen leaves, it’s believed she doesn’t have any connection with her family. And yet she returns for Goldie’s wedding, without it being a big deal for the parents. The music that Henry and Ravan select fit the mood, and sometimes the situation. Because the present characters rarely sing, the music luckily doesn't feel too pigeonholed into the story.
photo by Russ Rowland
Rock and Roll Refugee is really the Dee Roscioli and Katrina Rose Dideriksen show. Roscioli didn’t get to show off her pipes but rather prove her worth as a notable performer. Roscioli has impeccable skill, driving tense situations with truth. There’s a gruffness to her Goldie that adds a lightness to the dark themes. Though you may not have known just how old Goldie was supposed to be at certain ages, the maturity of the character shined through. Katrina Rose Dideriksen is a powerhouse vocalist. Dideriksen is the result of perfect casting. Between the natural rasp in her voice to her stage presence, this is a match made in casting heaven. From an acting perspective, Dideriksen had quite a difficult task filling in the blanks of being an active participant. There was constantly a light on her and while it’s unlikely the majority of the audience looked up, she needed to be on her game at all times. Dideriksen sublimely succeeded. Ravan and Dideriksen should team up and put out an album of covers as Dideriksen elevated the already stunning score. Kristin Nemecek as Helen was a ray of hope in this story. Nemecek’s rapport with Roscioli was the strongest on stage. With very little to do as Uncle Louie and Richy, DeAngelo Kearns exploded when he stepped into the spotlight. When he got his own solo, he gave a star-making vocal. Aside from the memory device, the other bold choice that effected the production was the use of the ensemble. Comprised of five capable dancers, the girls randomly appeared in numbers, dressed identically, to add an extra flair. But in reality, they seemed to be nothing more than glorified set movers. The only time their presence was warranted textually was at the strip club, otherwise they were present to keep the transitions moving. The use of the ensemble may strictly be due to taste. With choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter and Liz Ramos, the quintet did a fine job dancing, but it sadly distracted from the problems of the production.
It’s evident that Chris Henry had a vision when she was writing the libretto. And her vision came into fruition through her direction. Her libretto was problematic, yet her direction seemed to cover up the woes. There was a cohesiveness in the simplicity of the storytelling through design. With a very minimal set by Cheyenne Sykes and Alex Petersen, the highlight of the production’s design was Matthew Haber’s flawless video design. Melding moving images with period photos, Haber’s design set the ambiance better than anything else. They were never on point yet told the story they needed to tell. Rock and Roll Refugee would be an entirely different show without them. The lighting design from Elizabeth A. Coco captured a stunning array of emotions, traveling between time and place. Musical theater has a very specific sound. Taking a rock and roll canon and bringing it into this genre isn’t always easy. Especially if the audience is familiar with the songs. But what orchestrator Daniel A. Weiss did was something extraordinary. Weiss gave Genya Ravan’s music new life.
If you didn’t know who Genya Ravan was, you sure do now. While her music may not have shuffled into your classic rock mix before, it likely will now. Rock and Roll Refugee has a lot going for it but when it comes down to it, the book is sadly holding it back. The elements are present but when it comes to storytelling, some polishing needs to happen otherwise it will join the ranks of the strong songbook, poor story jukebox musicals.

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