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Rocktopia Review: Fusing Rock with Classical, Tuneful with Tacky

Singer Tony Vincent and guitarist Tony Bruno

“Imagine Mozart and Beethoven talking, and suddenly Freddie Mercury arrives,” singer Rob Evans said (in the only words anybody spoke all evening) about halfway through “Rocktopia.” If imagining this is painful to you, then you’re not a good fit for “Rocktopia,” which is subtitled “A Classical Revolution,” although it would be more accurate to subtitle it “A Rock Concert.”
“Rocktopia” mashes up pieces by, yes, Mozart and Beethoven as well as a dozen more classical composers with rock songs by, yes, Queen, as well as Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, the Beatles and more. (See full playlist below) I suspect Rocktopia would please rock fans more than classical music lovers, many of whom might consider it blasphemous – or at least blast-phemous. However, while some of the song pairings work better than others, for the open-minded (open-eared?), “Rocktopia” is an intriguing idea. If it winds up better than it sounds, it sounds way better than it looks.

The concert begins with the 20-piece New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra performing the first few minutes of “Also sprach Zarathustra,” composed in 1896 by Richard Strauss, which is better known as the theme song for 2001: A Space Odyssey. A violin solo by Mairead Nesbitt segues into The Who’s song Baba O’Riley, (“Don’t cry, don’t raise your eye/It’s only teenage wasteland”), backed by a five-piece rock band. The two pieces of music do feel like a match, sharing a sense of pounding grandeur. Pete Townsend intended “Baba O’Riley” to be part of a rock opera entitled Lighthouse, which never happened.  The song is sung by two Broadway pros — Rob Evan, who is the co-organizer of the concert and has performed in five Broadway musicals including as Jean Valjean in Les Miz and the title character in the original Jekyll and Hyde; and by Tony Vincent, who was the original villain St. Jimmy in “American Idiot,” and a veteran of the Broadway productions of “Rent” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” as well.

The four other singers are making their Broadway debuts, but they include opera singer Alyson Cambridge (whose credits include performances at The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall), singing the Handel aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” and Puccini’s“Musetta’s Waltz”; and Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, singing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” (Monahan is performing only through April 8; future “guest vocalists” include Twister Sister frontman Dee Snider and Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander.)

There’s also a 30-member choir.

There is, in other words, no shortage of musical talent in “Rocktopia.”

“Rocktopia” does, however, have a shortage of stagecraft or stage smarts. Advice to shows that wind up (even briefly) on Broadway: Please do not begin with “Hello, New York City!” Rob Evan might as well have said “We’re rubes on tour” or “This is the same show they saw in Tulsa.”  A trivial point, but it was a prelude to the godawful tacky projections – sunsets, waves, clouds, flowers, on and on — no different than computer screen savers but on a huge screen divided into 15 vertical strips.  The few times there is any connection between the visual and the aural, it’s worse; the possible nadir were the projections of dead rock stars plus Anne Frank during Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Occasionally – maybe a total of 15 minutes out of the two and a half hours – there is video artistry on those screens. But for most of the time, they might as well have written on them: “we’re trying to save money”; that message came through clearly anyway. What would have been nice is if they had projected the titles and composers of the compositions/songs they were playing/singing. These aren’t even in the program. There is a “study guide” on their website, obviously for school groups. But  In the actual theater, in place of education, there is  hype about revolution, and endless urging for us to wave our arms in the air.

This might have mattered less if Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center— and Bruce Springsteen, performing live! — weren’t a short walk away.

Rocktopia

Co-Creators: Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer; Music arranged by Randall Craig Fleischer; Musical Director: Tony Bruno; Production Design by Michael Stiller; Sound Design by Nick Kourtides; Video Design by Michael Stiller and Austin Switser; Costume Design by Cynthia Nordstrom; Fashion Design: Mimi Prober.

Cast: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Pat Monahan, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent, Alex Alexander, Henry Aronson, Tony Bruno, Mat Fields, Máiréad Nesbitt, New York Contemporary Choir, The New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra.

Rocktopia is scheduled to run on stage at the Broadway Theater (1681 Broadway at 53rd Street) through April 29, 2018

Set list:

“Also sprach Zarathustra” (STRAUSS)/ “Baba O’Riley” (THE WHO)
Vocalists: Rob Evan, Tony Vincent

“Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (MOZART)/ “Come Sail Away” (STYX)
Vocalists: Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent

“Lascia ch’io pianga” (HANDEL)/ “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (ELTON JOHN)
Vocalists: Alyson Cambridge, Tony Vincent

“Piano concerto No. 2 in C minor” (RACHMANINOFF)/ “Alone” (HEART)
Vocalist: Chloe Lowery

“Symphony No. 7: Allegretto” (BEETHOVEN)/ “Stairway To Heaven” (LED ZEPPELIN)
Vocalist: Pat Monahan

“The Rite of Spring” (STRAVINSKY)/ “Purple Haze” (JIMI HENDRIX)
Vocalist: Tony Vincent

“Overture from Romeo & Juliet” (TCHAIKOVSKY)/ “Because The Night” (PATTI SMITH)
Vocalist: Kimberly Nichole

“Another Brick in the Wall” (PINK FLOYD)/“Uprising” (MUSE)
Vocalists: Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent

“Kashmir” (LED ZEPPELIN)/“Nessun Dorma” (PUCCINI)
Vocalists: Pat Monahan; Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent

“Pictures at an Exhibition: Gate of Kiev” (MUSSORGSKY)/“Where The Streets Have No Name” (U2)
Vocalist: Rob Evan

“Symphonie fantastique” (BERLIOZ)/“Dream On” (AEROSMITH)
Vocalists: Pat Monahan, Kimberly Nichole

“Quando m’en vo (Musetta’s Waltz)” (PUCCINI)/“Something” (THE BEATLES)
Vocalists: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan

“Caruso” (DALLA)
Vocalists: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan

“I Want to Know What Love Is” (FOREIGNER)
Vocalist: Chloe Lowery

“Adagio for Strings” (BARBER)/“Who Wants to Live Forever”,“We Are The Champions” (QUEEN)
Vocalists: Chloe Lowery, Tony Vincent

“Symphony No. 9: Ode to Joy” (BEETHOVEN)/“Don’t Stop Believin’” (JOURNEY)
Vocalists: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Pat Monahan, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent

“The Planets” (HOLST)/“Drops of Jupiter” (TRAIN)
Vocalist: Pat Monahan

“Rhapsody In Blue” (GERSHWIN)/“Bohemian Rhapsody” (QUEEN)
Vocalists: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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