'Rocktopia': Theater Review

Rocktopia Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Mathew Murphy
An ungainly musical melange.

Familiar rock songs and classical pieces are fused together in this theatrical concert featuring vocalists backed by a rock band, symphony orchestra and choir.

Rock and classical music had a shotgun wedding, and their love child is on Broadway in the form of Rocktopia. Not since K-tel's best-selling Hooked on Classics series in the 1980s has there been such a misguided attempt to combine two musical forms. This concert production, created by Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer, has enjoyed some touring success and the company's Live in Budapest video has become a PBS staple. But the show feels woefully out of place in one of Broadway's largest and most historic theaters. Ethel Merman, who performed there in Gypsy, must be rolling over in her grave.

Speaking of rolling over, the show has somehow left out "Roll Over Beethoven" from its repertoire. But that's pretty much the only case in which it shows restraint.

The concept is simple. Some three dozen rock songs and classical pieces are mashed together in easily digestible musical bites. In most cases, a very recognizable classical number leads directly into a rock anthem, although in some cases they're intertwined. The music is performed by five vocalists, a rock band and newly created entities dubbed The New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra and the New York Contemporary Choir. (The show's producers got into some hot water when they initially refused to pay the choir members the minimum Broadway rate, but they eventually caved.) The Broadway engagement also features guest appearances by actual rock stars, starting off with Pat Monahan of Train through April 8, followed by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister (April 9-15), with Cheap Trick's Robin Zander (April 23-29) finishing out the show's limited run.

Over the years, numerous rock stars including Kiss, Metallica, Sting and Elton John have performed their music with symphony orchestras. The idea, while good in theory, never quite works. Rocktopia ups the stakes by featuring genuine classical pieces, starting off with Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" (you know it from 2001: A Space Odyssey) leading into the Who's "Baba O'Riley." Among the other musical incongruities are Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" with Styx's "Come Sail Away," Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" with Aerosmith's "Dream On," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" with Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" and, well, you get the idea.

Evan, who also serves as one of the vocalists, has not only appeared in numerous Broadway shows including Jekyll & Hyde and Les Miserables but is also a regular member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, to which this enterprise holds a clear stylistic debt. He's also the show's exuberant host: "Welcome to our classical revolution!" he bellows at one point.

But if this is the revolution he's talking about, you can, to quote John Lennon, count me out. The musical mishmashes on display rarely come off effectively, more often feeling like gimmickry than the presumed intent of having the two styles musically complement and comment on each other. The snippets from well-known classical pieces followed by bombastic renditions of overly familiar rock songs prove novel for the first few minutes. But over the course of two-and-a-half hours, it becomes a punishing exercise that will please neither classical nor rock lovers.

To be fair, a few of the numbers work thanks to the sometimes clever arrangements by Fleischer, billed in the program as "Maestro." In the best examples, such as "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Boheme leading into the Beatles "Something," the music is entwined in revelatory fashion. And occasionally, as with Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring"/Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," the segue proves ingenious.

One of the problems is that the well-worn set list produces unintended pop culture references. I can't hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" anymore without thinking of Bruce Willis fighting for his life in Die Hard, or Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" without wondering what the hell really happened to Tony Soprano. It was also a mistake to include the theme from Schindler's List (an entry notably missing from the setlist provided to reviewers). Yes, it's a haunting piece of music. But it makes you want to shout to the show's creators, "Context, people! Context!"

The singers — Evan, Chloe Lowery, Tony Vincent (Broadway's American Idiot and Jesus Christ Superstar), Kimberly Nichole and Alyson Cambridge — certainly possess powerful voices. But they mostly perform in the American Idol tradition of favoring bombast over subtlety, volume over lyrical interpretation. Not surprisingly, it's Monahan who comes off best, displaying a relaxed style that marks a distinct contrast to the often forced renditions of the other performers. The Train frontman unveils an impressive Robert Plant-style wail on "Stairway to Heaven" and "Kashmir," and in the encore sings his band's biggest hit, "Drops of Jupiter" (I would have preferred "Hey, Soul Sister"). The musicians are generally fine, with the show's oft-used MVP, Celtic violinist Mairead Nesbitt, the clear standout.

Not helping matters are the cheesy costumes, with plenty of leather for the men and dresses slit to the thighs on the women. But the garments are an improvement over the projections displaying an array of predictable, cliched imagery — trees for "The Rite of Spring," psychedelia for "Purple Haze." During Barber's "Adagio for Strings," there's a procession of photos of dead rock stars...and John Denver. Fortunately, the view of the stage is frequently obscured by the lights shining directly into our eyes as if trying to burn our corneas. Now if only they had figured out how to block the sound as well.

Venue: Broadway Theatre, New York
Cast: Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Tony Vincent, Kimberly Nichole, Alyson Cambridge, Pat Monahan, Mairead Nesbitt, Tony Bruno, Henry Aronson, Mat Fieldes, Alex Alexander, Randall Craig Fleischer, New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, New York Contemporary Choir
Co-creators: Rob Evan, Randall Craig Fleischer
Production designer: Michael Stiller

Costume designer: Cynthia Nordstrom
Sound designer: Nick Kourtides
Video designers: Michael Stiller, Austin Switser

Executive producers: William Franzblau
Presented by Franzblau Media, Hughes Wall LLXC RT Entertainment, Dr. & Mrs. Bud Negley, Jules & Fran Belkin, M2M Entertainment, Two Hands Entertainment