Monday, April 20, 2015

"Broadway Songbook: Rock & Roll on Broadway" at the Ordway Center

In case the Ordway was not sufficiently rocked in the recent month-long "Rock the Ordway" celebration, the rockification continued with the most recent installment of the Broadway Songbook series, in which Artistic Director James Rocco hosts an evening of musical theater education and entertainment. The theme of this Songbook, which ran for only three performances last weekend (why so short?) is "Rock & Roll on Broadway," not "Rock Musicals," an important distinction. The songlist was comprised of songs not just from rock musicals written for the stage, but also jukebox musicals or concept albums that made it to the stage. A continuation of last fall's "First 100 Years on Broadway," the show focused on rock and pop songs being heard on the Broadway stage in various formats. And as per usual with this series, the result was a marvelously entertaining, informative, fun, informal evening featuring great songs performed by a fantastic cast.

This was my first time in the Ordway's new Concert Hall (a brief detour on the way to see Bernadette Peters notwithstanding), and I found it to be a lovely space. Despite seating 1100 people, it doesn't feel huge, in fact it has a similar intimacy to the old McKnight Theatre, which was demolished to make room for the Concert Hall. In the interim, Broadway Songbooks were presented on the huge stage of the Ordway's main theater, with the audience sitting right on the stage along with the performers on a small stage at the very back of the space. It was fun to be on that stage, but it was a bit of an awkward experience to watch a show there, so I'm happy it's now moved into the Concert Hall. The new space has its own new bathrooms, which is handy, but it would be nice if it also had its own bar and especially box office, to ease the flow of people entering the theater.

But enough about that - on to the show! Host James (who happily can't resist singing a bit) and musical director Raymond Berg (taking the weekend off from his current gig music directing And the World Goes 'Round at the Jungle) are joined by a rockin' band consisting of percussion and two guitars. They have also assembled a dream cast of local favorites. Any day that I can sit in a dark room and listen to Dieter Bierbrauer sing is a good day in my book. So this was a good day, and then some! Dieter was only one of seven amazingly talented performers, including frequent stage partner Randy Schmeling (whom I've seen perform together numerous times over the years including Hair and Power Balladz, more on those a bit later). And then we have Eric Schwab, who is pretty much the best thing ever to happen to musical theater cabarets. She is genius at a very specific and difficult skill - singing comedically. She's absolutely hilarious, singing almost in a campy way sometimes, but yet her voice is never less than perfect, and she does it all in an easy, effortless, fun way that makes it impossible for the audience not to have fun with her. This cast also features Caroline Innerbichler with her lovely voice, infectious spirit, and toned torso (see also The Little Mermaid); the Ursula to Caroline's Ariel - Kersten Rodau of the huge and powerful voice in the tiny body; the adorable and talented Reid Harmsen (who will always be Mark to me); and Yolande Bruce, who is new to me but fits in well with the group and brings her own unique talents.

For this very special Songbook, the cast traded in their usual evening gowns and tuxes for leather, denim, and bare midriffs. They were all in for the rock and roll theme! But the best part is they really performed each song with conviction and emotion, as if it was excerpted from a full production. Many of the songs were so fantastic that I wanted them to continue and do the entire musical! But instead, we got lots of little gems, including:
  • A glorious medley from the Hair, the American tribal love-rock musical, started the show. Which pleased me not just because I'm obsessed with a big fan of the show, but because it featured Randy and Dieter from the first production of Hair I ever saw (at the Pantages Theatre 11 years ago), and Caroline, from the most recent production I've seen (by 7th House two years ago).
  • Another glorious medley, from my favorite musical RENT, which James rightly called "the heir to Hair," ended the first act. It included "La Vie Boheme" (with Reid reprising his role as Mark from a local production five years ago), the poignant "No Day But Today," and of course, "Seasons of Love."
  • As usual, Professor Rocco enlightened me about a few musicals I had never heard of - Chess (music by Abba) and Purlie. And "Muddy Water" from Roger Miller's Big River makes me want to see that show!
  • Kersten makes an excellent Eva Peron, singing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from Evita.
  • The second act opened with the boys singing "The Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening, and although I wondered how some of the typical Songbook audience (which skews a bit older) reacted, I was thrilled!
  • And I was even more thrilled to hear a few songs from another one of my favorites, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. With Kersten and Dieter as the parents and Caroline and Randy as the kids in this beautifully dysfunctional family, I wanted this one to continue. But lucky for me, and any of you with a N2N craving, Yellow Tree Theatre is currently producing the show in their intimate space.
  • Power Balladz is not a Broadway musical, but rather a locally grown '80s rock jukebox musical that made it all the way to Off-Broadway. But since this show reunites the original cast-members, they had to do a number from the show. And they picked a good one - Dieter, Randy, and Erin singing Dream On was a highlight of the night.
  • In general, I'm not a fan of jukebox musicals. I don't think their presence on Broadway is something to be celebrated, I think it's the death of Broadway! But I guess it's important to acknowledge the ugly parts of our history so we can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. ;) As James said about Mamma Mia, "If you didn't know the songs already existed you'd think they were written for the story ... not!" But still, it was fun to hear the girls sing "Dancing Queen."
  • Jersey Boys* is the exception that proves the jukebox musical rule (a cleverly written book that illuminates the real life story of The Four Seasons), and Randy nicely channeled Frankie Valli's sweet falsetto backed up by Dieter and Reid, with some snappy choreography.
  • "I'm A Woman" is another song not written for the stage, but included in Smokey Joe's Cafe. But who cares when these four fantastic W-O-M-E-N brought the house down with their version!
  • You can't cover everything in two hours, but one obvious omission was American Idiot, based on Green Day's concept album, another heir to Hair and RENT. And as long as we're including music not written for the stage, how about Once**, featuring music that one could call folk-rock by my favorite musician Glen Hansard?
The Broadway Songbook series is a must for musical theater nerds fans like me, and "Rock & Roll on Broadway" was another great installment! While I would have preferred fewer jukebox musicals and more original rock musicals, I loved every song as performed by this cast and band. The entertaining musical theater education continues this fall with "The 70s Songbook." But before then you can catch not one but two Ordway original productions featuring local talent, hopefully including this cast! Damn Yankees plays in June, and Pirates of Penzance in August. Hooray for "Broadway-style/quality" (whatever that's supposed to mean) musicals produced right here in the Twin Cities!

*You can see Jersey Boys next week, on tour at the Orpheum Theatre.